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Taking the edge off most code problems

A majority of violations are taken care of immediately. But the county is looking at ways to deal with long-term and drawn out cases.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 3, 2002

HOMOSASSA -- Ron Gagliano bought Crawdaddy's restaurant in April 2000 and started complaining almost immediately. The tires, batteries, boats and old cars made his neighbor's yard look more like a landfill than a fisherman's home, he said.

Couldn't the county do something?

"We've got all this new stuff going on in Old Homosassa. We're showing people how to get here, we're trying to spruce it up," Gagliano said. "The second thing they see when they get here is a junkyard. Tourists coming in here don't want to see that."

County code enforcement officers visited the site numerous times and sent notices of violation to Ray Locklear, who protested that the so-called junk was his commercial fishing equipment and his collection of licensed, operable classic cars.

"All this whoop-de-do is over eight tires and two batteries," Locklear said. "The two batteries are used in my boats and the tires are used on my trucks. Can't I have an extra spare tire for my truck?"

Compliance dates came and went. County officials became mired in a debate with Locklear over the ownership of an unimproved alleyway -- essentially a paper road -- that runs through Locklear's 2 acres.

Locklear hired an attorney, and the Code Enforcement Board delayed action at its meeting last month so the county attorney could figure out whether the alleyway belongs to Locklear or the county.

Gagliano just sighs. He doesn't know why things have dragged on this long.

"I know there's got to be a better way than what they're doing now," Gagliano said.

County Commissioner Gary Bartell, who hears from constituents about this and other long-running code enforcement cases, began thinking the same thing.

At last month's goal-setting session, Bartell said the county should explore ways to expedite code enforcement cases. While many complaints are resolved quickly, he said, others linger over months of inspections and multiple trips to the Code Enforcement Board, which meets once a month to consider fines against violators.

One alternative: Give the code enforcement officers the power to issue citations on the spot, eliminating the need for a code enforcement board.

The civil citations would be similar to a traffic ticket. Violators either pay the fine or contest the charge before a county judge.

At the commission's direction, County Attorney Robert Battista is researching that alternative.

"It's a horror story when you get into them," Bartell said. "If you place yourself in the position of the people who live around these, they get so upset because it takes so long to ever get it to the Code Enforcement Board stage."

Gary Maidhof, who oversees code enforcement as the director of Development Services, said the longstanding cases are few. Most people fix the problems after hearing from a code enforcement officer, and they never see the Code Enforcement Board, he said.

"This system works surprisingly well because most people want to be in compliance," Maidhof said.

Changing to a system where code enforcement officers could issue citations could also create a greater workload for the officers and the judiciary, he said.

"Without more resources in the court system and more resources at my end of it, I don't think it's a wise move," Maidhof said.

The cases that go unresolved now, however, are also a drain on the resources of the code enforcement division -- and in some cases, the Sheriff's Office, the judiciary and other taxpayer-funded agencies, too, Bartell said.

"Of course, the whole objective to code enforcement, the way I see it, is to bring things into compliance," Bartell said. "I realize there has to be some leniency given to people, if they're in bad health or they have to hire someone to help them. But when no action is being taken and you can't see appreciable results, I think we need to take a harder stance on them."

Ozello's Hatfields and McCoys

The dispute started a year ago with a 6-foot-high red clay mound that Randall and Deborah Foti laid alongside their home. The Fotis planned to move their vehicles to that patch of higher ground in case of a flood.

The neighbors, Shields and Jackie Gay, said the unsightly mound faced their front door and could channel stormwater runoff onto their property. The Gays called code enforcement and the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Within a matter of weeks, the Fotis and the Gays became Ozello's version of the Hatfields and the McCoys.

The Gays complained to code enforcement that the Fotis created noise, fumes and traffic at all hours with their home business, extracting honey from honeycombs collected off-site.

The Fotis countered with charges that the Gays lacked permits for their boat ramp and driveway aprons.

The Gays called Animal Control about the "horse smell" from next door. The Fotis called Animal Control and said the Gays' golden Labrador, Valentine, was running loose and barking at them.

The Gays called the Sheriff's Office, which issued six tickets to the Fotis for having a commercial truck parked at their home. A judge later dismissed the tickets, leaving the county and the Fotis to argue whether the truck counts as equipment allowed at their home business.

The Gays called the deputies again, when the Fotis piled chairs and plywood in the Gays' driveway and claimed that corner of property actually belonged to them.

Mrs. Gay quit her job so she could log, photograph and videotape the alleged code violations and deal with code enforcement officers who work a 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift.

The Fotis hung giant blue tarps along their property line to shield their home and yard from the cameras.

"It's quite a feud, huh?" Mrs. Foti said. "It's harassment, is what it is."

The tensions boiled over Dec. 7, when Mrs. Foti was arrested for battery after having an outdoor altercation with Mrs. Gay, who was videotaping Mrs. Foti's horses. Each woman says she was pushed by the other, but the sheriff's report says the videotape and the marks on Mrs. Gay's neck supported her version of events.

Mrs. Foti has an April 15 court date.

The feud has consumed the past year of each family's life. Both sides have spent hours trying to show code enforcement officers that they have the right paperwork and their homes and pets are in compliance. Both have hired attorneys to help.

County Administrator Richard Wesch plans to sit down Monday morning with both lawyers to try to reach a resolution -- something the Code Enforcement Board has not provided.

Last month the board found the Fotis in violation of two conditions of their permit for their home business: Only family members can help with the business, and the noise cannot disrupt the neighbors.

"They gave them until March 18 to be in compliance or a $200-a-day fine starts," code enforcement officer Jerry Schaaf said. "So we'll wait and see between now and March 18 what happens."

Mrs. Gay isn't holding her breath.

"On the 18th they'll be in complete compliance for the issues at hand at the Code Enforcement Board," she said. "On the 19th and the 20th it will be a little bit quiet. Seven days later it will be business as usual."

A success story

The complaints in Citrus have a familiar ring to Frank McDowell III. Hernando County had the same problems with lingering cases a decade ago, and decided in 1992 to retire its code enforcement board and give its inspectors the power to issue citations.

"We would be getting calls from citizens saying, "Why does it take four to five months to get something cleaned up?' " said McDowell, Hernando County's director of code enforcement and president of the Florida Association of Code Enforcement. "It should be quicker than that."

Under the new system, McDowell said, compliance shot up to about 90 percent, compared with about 60 or 70 percent under the code enforcement board.

The inspector visits the site, identifies the problems and gives the property owner 30 days to fix them. If violations still exist a month later without any signs of improvement, the inspector gives a civil citation: $100 for the first offense, $200 for the second and up to $500 plus a mandatory court appearance for the third.

The fine schedule is set by the Hernando County Commission.

Although violators can challenge the citation in county court, Hernando County residents rarely take that route.

In January, the county gave 238 notices of violation and 73 citations, and on average about a half-dozen will challenge their citation in court, McDowell said.

The key to not burdening the court system is to be judicious in issuing citations, he said. Inspectors should not rush to write tickets after 30 days if the property owner is making progress and could come into compliance within another week or two, he said.

"If you get someone out there who's really gung-ho and wants to write a lot of tickets, you could overload the court system," he said. "My guys don't do that."

When it comes time to hit the property owner's pocketbook, the fine system is also more effective than the liens placed by the code enforcement board, McDowell said.

Once the code enforcement board reaches the penalty phase, the fines accrue for each day the property remains in violation. At $200 a day or more, the fines can quickly turn into substantial property liens.

Under its code enforcement board, Hernando County had some properties with liens worth millions of dollars -- too astronomical for violators to ever pay off, McDowell said. And unless they're trying to sell the property, nothing forces the owners to pay the liens, especially if the property is a homestead, which state law protects from foreclosure.

"It's not realistic you would ever collect that money," McDowell said. "To me, it was a lot of work for really nothing."

After disbanding the code enforcement board, Hernando County offered an amnesty deal to property owners: Pay a $250 fine and a $6 recording fee and the county will lift the code enforcement liens.

The new system has one more perk: The watering restrictions are actually enforced.

Armed with citation powers, the code enforcement officers in Hernando County can issue tickets to residents who water too much or on the wrong day.

In Citrus County, by contrast, water restriction enforcement falls to the Sheriff's Office because the code enforcement inspectors here cannot dole out fines. The Sheriff's Office has said their other calls for service take a higher priority than citing residents who water their lawns out of turn.

"If (Citrus) code enforcement could enforce the watering restrictions, that would certainly help," Bartell said.

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