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A Times Editorial

Civic group bullies should be ashamed

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 7, 2003

For an association with a stated mission to preserve the quality of life in its neighborhood, the Forest Lake Estates civic group sure is making life miserable for some residents there.

Friday, Steven and Corrina Gourlay announced they have had enough. Following a court hearing over a lawsuit contending their five foster children violate the neighborhood's deed restrictions, the Gourlays announced they planned to move from the neighborhood, which is just north of Ridge Road in west Pasco County.

"We need to move -- we don't feel the same about the house anymore," Corrina Gourlay told Times staff writer Cary Davis. "There's a completely different tone in the community."

One of their biggest defenders found that out later Friday when the association's attorney, Donald Peyton, sued his next-door neighbors, contending their dog's droppings were a nuisance. It is difficult not to view the suit against Eddie and Therese Morelli as retaliatory for their support of the Gourlays.

Peyton's legal maneuver exacerbated the ill will in the neighborhood. But we should be used to that. It is Peyton who suggested previously that profit motivated the Gourlays to care for foster children.

Some profit. They are reimbursed an average of 56 cents per hour per child.

The association's court fight is simple ageism. Besides housing five foster children, the association said the Gourlays violated the restrictions by altering the property without approval of its architectural committee and by creating "an annoyance or nuisance to the neighborhood." The lawsuit does not specify the changes to the property other than multiple structures, including a partially buried boat shell, in the back yard.

The boat shell, however, is actually the children's sand box. The other structure is a swing set.

Civic group members pressing this fight should be ashamed of themselves. Their ill-advised bullying may push the Gourlays from the neighborhood, but the legal action exposes neighbors to a counterclaim of discrimination from the Gourlays.

It would have been wise to end this dispute at the outset or when the Florida Attorney General's Office weighed in last week.

"Since the community does not even claim to qualify as housing for older people as defined by the Fair Housing Act, it must alow families with children to live in the community and cannot legally distinguish between biological and foster children," reads a legal brief from the Attorney General's Office. "There is no evidence or claim of bad behavior by the children; rather the nuisance claim seems to be based on the mere presence of the foster children. Such a claim clearly violated the state and federal fair housing laws."

Monday, Circuit Judge Stanley Mills dismissed the case, but ruled it can be filed again within 20 days. Common sense should prevail. The civic group should walk away.

Recruiting qualified foster parents is a difficult task. The Department of Children and Families' subcontractor in Pasco and Pinellas counties, Family Continuity Program, places 10 to 15 children each weekday and relies heavily on people like the Gourlays who accept multiple children into their home. The agency also attempts to place children in the same community in which they had lived previously.

Considering the welcome mat offered by the Forest Lake Estates Civic Association, is it any wonder one of the Gourlays' foster charges ran away from home last week? Swapping a dysfunctional family for a dysfunctional civic association isn't much of an upgrade.

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