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County again pledges to clean up junkyard

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 22, 2002

WEEKI WACHEE -- Almost two years after giving junkyard owner L.B. Richards 20 days to clean up his "eyesore" property, Hernando County stands ready to take over the task itself.

Twice, the county has sent crews of inmates to help remove tons of junk that covered the OK Corral, commonly referred to as Hubcap City, just to see Richards bring more items back.

A judge also ordered Richards to stop buying and selling items piecemeal, leaving the place shuttered and cluttered.

Now, just days before the sides are to return to court, they are close to a final settlement that would have the county clear the "visual nuisance" and Richards foot the bill or face a lien of no more than $10,000. The county would agree not to foreclose on the property, so long as Richards keeps the site up to code.

"It's really been embarrassing for new visitors and the citizens who have lived in Hernando County, who have used that as a landmark for Hernando County," code enforcement director Frank McDowell III said Monday. "I would prefer that it not be there at all. . . . But it takes forever for him to do it. At least this will get it done."

Richards, who was removing items from the site Monday with two helpers, said he wants out of his decades-old business and pledged to work with the county.

"I'm going to quit," Richards said, as he showed off his remaining prize pieces, which included a 12-foot mirrored cherrywood bar with marble counter top. (Yours for a deal, the nonstop salesman offers.)

"Whatever they say or do, it's going to be the law," he said. "The judge is going to be the main man in this. I think the code enforcement officer, McDowell, has helped a lot. . . . I did the best I could."

Ground, though dusty and weedy, is clearly visible in areas where mounds of hubcaps, PVC piping and other items once lay. Loads of rusted metal have been hauled away. The inside of his shop has unusually clear pathways.

Yet the building's rusted roof stands out among the trees and newer structures that line U.S. 19 north of Weeki Wachee. An unkempt assortment of trucks on blocks, old boats and bikes, rusty metal pieces and shopping carts filled randomly remains cast about the property.

"Sometimes the junk is on the roads," said Sister Mary John, a Franciscan at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima and St. Catejean, which lies behind the OK Corral. "It's not even a well-kept junkyard. . . . Unfortunately, the people that come, everybody talks about it."

The shrine has talked with Richards about buying his land, the Rev. James Wright said, but the price has been too high.

June Gulbrandsen, co-owner of Windward Realty, has had little success trying to sell properties close to the junkyard.

"Who in the heck wants to put up a new business when the property next to it is junk?" Gulbrandsen said. "It's such an eyesore."

She predicted values would improve if Richards or the county cleans the site.

Unfortunately, she added, previous promises to take care of the mess did not amount to much.

"He has pushed and pushed and pushed over the years," Gulbrandsen said. "Everybody else has to abide by the rules except for him. It's just upsetting."

Commissioner Diane Rowden, whose district includes the OK Corral, acknowledged that officials have promised to "finally" take care of this problem since she moved to the county more than 15 years ago.

At this point, Rowden said she would accept any workable solution, because the county needs to find a lasting cure once and for all.

Gulbrandsen cheered for a lasting resolution.

"I realize it's a situation they have to deal with," she said. "I'm hoping they will deal with it fully this time."

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