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FAA forcing Vero airport to evict mobile home park

STORY BY RAY MCNULTY (Week of September 22, 2022)

At age 74, Cindy Binafif doesn’t know where she’ll go after the Federal Aviation Administration forces Vero Beach city officials to shut down the Citrus Park Village mobile home community where she has lived for nearly 50 years.

But it certainly looks like residents of the 69-unit mobile home park – which for more than half a century has occupied a chunk of land on the periphery of Vero Beach Airport – will soon be forced to take flight.

“There are a lot of older residents here – many who’ve been here a long time – and most of us can’t afford to move,” Binafif said. “Even if we could afford it, most places around town have a one-year waiting list. Where are we going to go?”

She paused briefly to compose herself, then added: “This is going to be a death sentence for some of us.”

In an Aug. 18 letter to Vero Beach Airport Director Todd Scher, the FAA rejected the city’s request to allow the mobile home community to continue occupying the property.

The FAA wrote that long-term residential use of airport property that “does not directly support aeronautical operations” is “incompatible” and “non-compliant” with the agency’s requirements and policies governing federal grants.

If Vero Beach officials don’t remove the mobile homes and rezone the property to an FAA-approved land-use designation, the airport no longer would be eligible for federal grants, Scher said, adding that the city also could be required to return federal funds it already has received.

City officials have until Oct. 28 to submit a “corrective action plan” to resolve the matter.

“The FAA has told us what we have to do,” Scher said. “It can’t be a mobile home park.”

Vero Beach officials tried to save Citrus Park Village, writing in an Aug. 11 letter to the FAA that residential use of the property has been ongoing since “circa 1942” – when the current airport site was a Naval Air Station, before the U.S. government transferred the land to the city in 1947.

City officials argued the mobile home park has not been a source of complaints or concerns in the neighboring community, and that the rents paid by tenants generate “significant non-aeronautical income” used to support the airport’s operations.

Scher said the average monthly lot rent is $208, which means the tenants, who all own their residences, collectively provide the airport with more than $170,000 in revenue each year.

The FAA, however, was unmoved.

Despite having reviewed and approved the Vero Beach airport’s plans and maps for decades – all of them included the mobile home park – the FAA requested in its August letter that the city “remove the incompatible land use as soon as practical.”

“Several years back, the FAA sent a guy here to look at the airport property, and I drove him around,” Scher said. “I personally took him to Citrus Park Village, but it didn’t show up on the report.”

Scher said the FAA notified the city earlier this year that it had changed its grant-eligibility regulations. And as City Attorney John Turner told members of the city’s Airport Commission last week: “What happened in the past will not govern actions in the present.”

Turner said other airports are being given the same directive, adding that he’ll be delving into the Florida statutes that govern the operation and disbanding of mobile home parks.

Airport Commission Chairman Buck Vocelle recommended that Scher and Turner urge the FAA to give the mobile home community residents the “maximum amount of time to relocate.”

Scher said the city must give the Citrus Park Village residents at least six months from the time the FAA accepts the plan, but he plans to push for at least a year. He said he doesn’t expect they’d need to vacate the premises before the end of 2023.

At the commission’s June meeting, Scher was asked if the FAA would provide federal grant money to help the residents relocate or even purchase their mobile homes if they cannot be moved.

“They mentioned it as a possibility,” Scher said, “but there was no commitment.”

Whatever the FAA decides, Scher knows the optics are terrible, especially at a time when the current real-estate market will make it nearly impossible for the mobile home community’s residents to find affordable options locally.

Residents of Citrus Park Village held a meeting Sunday to discuss the FAA’s directive, but there appears to be little they can do.

“There have been rumors about this for years, but they usually go away,” Binafif said. “This time, it looks like it’s really going to happen, and it’s just not right.

“A lot of people here manage their finances based on what they pay for rent here,” she added. “We’re not going to find anything for the same money, or even close to it. Are we going to have to live in our cars?

“Like I said: I won’t be surprised if people die because of this.”