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Like a good neighbor, Sue Lyon is there

The head of a citywide neighborhood association proves the wisdom of having a tree-hugging conservative on your side.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 24, 2003


BAYSHORE BEAUTIFUL -- Sue Lyon didn't set out to become a neighborhood defender.

It just kind of happened, thanks to one backyard mess after another.

There was the motorist who used Lyon's street as a cut-through, leaving her late Weimaraner, Sir, with a broken leg. There was the neighbor who kept a car lot's worth of jalopies in his yard, and the mailbox that exploded after Lyon complained.

There was the other neighbor, the one who butchered grand oaks because leaves were yucking up a swimming pool.

And then there was the city -- there's always the city -- which allowed a two-story home to erupt next to her fence line.

"I didn't want a two-story house out my back window," said Lyon, 64, who lives on an oak-draped lot in Bayshore Beautiful. "But they said, 'Too bad.' I said, 'Okay."'

After she said okay, she channelled frustration into action.

She became president of the Bayshore Beautiful Homeowners Association and then Tampa Homeowners, an Association of Neighborhoods, better known as THAN.

When it comes to neighborhood protection, THAN is the group. And Lyon is the voice.

Whether at the podium in front of City Council or behind the scenes, she speaks for neighborhoods on everything from sidewalks and speed bumps to liquor laws and McMansions.

Since being elected president of THAN last year, she has stood with Virginia Park residents against businesses cropping up on Euclid Avenue; with Ballast Point residents fighting removal of a grand oak tree; with Bayshore residents worried about a new high-rise condo and the stream of cars it may bring to narrow streets.

She's not flashy, and she's not loud. But politicians hear her just fine.

Last summer, Lyon opposed a request by Potbellies restaurant on Himes Avenue to serve hard liquor. Owners gathered 1,000 signatures; they even got a letter of support from a minister.

But with little discussion, City Council sided against them.

"If we had a Sue Lyon here, things would be different," said Council Chairman Charlie Miranda, referring to his neighborhood near St. Joseph's Hospital.

There, cars park illegally in yards, and businesses sprout helter skelter next to homes. The neighborhood doesn't have a civic association.

Lyon would not be happy. She sees her role as protecting oasises in a concrete jungle. A neighborhood is supposed to be where people can unwind and get away from the "frenzy we all live in," she said recently, over fruit and oatmeal at the Brunchery on MacDill Avenue.

"It's home," she said.

Lyon doesn't look like a radical. She's not wild-eyed. She doesn't tote protest signs. She's a registered Republican who says she voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964.

"I believe in property rights. I believe in less government," Lyon said. "If everybody did the right thing, we wouldn't have to have any government."

And yet, she beams proudly, "I'm the most hated person in the development community."

And don't get her started about trees.

The semi-retired real estate agent made a name for herself in 2000, when a Bayshore Beautiful couple scalped a giant oak tree in their yard.

"Something needs to be done," she told the Times back then, conveying the outrage of her neighbors. "These are not people who riot in the street. These are people who vote."

Sure enough, city officials strengthened the tree code.

Lyon likes trees so much, she bought the vacant lot next door to her ranch-style home so three grand oaks on the property would never get the ax. Before a new home went up across the street, she paid $300 to have a 15-foot orange tree transplanted from that yard to hers.

"Don't tell me it's just an orange tree," Lyon said. "Each one of God's creatures is important."

Lyon sprouted in Tampa soil. She was born in Tampa General Hospital and grew up in the neighborhood of Midtown, just north of Kennedy Boulevard and west of Howard Avenue. Her father died when she was 7, leaving her mother to raise five kids alone while working in a cigar box factory, putting decorative trim on boxes by hand.

"They didn't have machinery in those days," Lyon said. "They hired poor people to do that."

After hopscotching around the country for 10 years with husband Herb Lyon, an electrical engineer, Sue Lyon returned to South Tampa in 1976. She and Herb bought a home in the Gandy neighborhood.

Soon, troubles began.

Veterinarians put a metal plate and 13 silver screws in Sir's leg after the car incident. During a surprise storm, the Lyons watched as the renegade waters of Tampa Bay nearly roiled into their home. And then, there was the neighbor from hell.

"He practically ran a used car lot out of there," Lyon said.

Residents complained to each other about the eyesore for years, but no one approached the neighbor or the city. Finally, reluctantly, Lyon got up the nerve.

She talked to the man. He was not persuaded.

Then she talked to the city.

The next thing she knew, her car windows were smashed.

Later, somebody set off explosives in her mailbox, catapulting pieces of it onto her roof and drawing the police department's bomb squad.

"You see why I want to keep a low profile," she said.

Lyon had her suspicions about who was responsible but could never prove it.

Worst of all, nothing changed. The man moved his cars temporarily. At one point, the city moved some too, Lyon said. But they always came back. Eventually, the Lyons moved to Bayshore Beautiful.

"It just got to be too much," Lyon said.

But the experience wasn't a total loss. The budding activist was learning plenty.

Lyon Lesson One: Expect a long wait if you want action from the city.

Lesson Two: Happy endings are not a sure thing.

In Bayshore Beautiful, Lyon learned some more.

When she got wind of a neighbor's plans to build a new house right up to her fence line, she circulated petitions. Hundreds of her neighbors signed, fearing the same quirk in zoning laws would saddle them with a miserable view, too.

But Lyon still lost.

The lessons here: Don't waste time on petitions. Lobby in person. The more, the better.

And oh yeah, the kicker: "Make sure you have a good council," Lyon said. "This council is a lot better than the last one."

Did THAN have anything to do with that?

Lyon raised her eyebrows and laughed: "I don't know," she said.

THAN does not publicly endorse candidates, nor does it raise money for them. Members are politically active, but the group itself is not, Lyon insisted.

"We have to work with the city officials, whoever they are," she said.

But when THAN speaks, politicians strain to hear.

"They're organized and articulate and represent a lot of voters," said City Councilwoman Linda Saul-Sena.

Those who ignore them "do so at their own peril," she said.

Being a neighborhood activist has its downsides.

Sometimes, people get upset. Sometimes, neighbors become enemies.

After Lyon told the city about a neighbor illegally shearing oaks, her husband and the tree trimmer got into a shouting match. She and the neighbor don't talk anymore.

"I'm not blaming her," Lyon said. "I'm sure she thinks I'm the meanest person in the world."

Lyon shrugged: It had to be done. Neighborhoods face threats from every direction, small ones and big ones, she said. Somebody has to face them. Who better than a right-wing tree hugger?

Without neighborhoods, Lyon said, "there's no place to relax and you spend your time in a car."

"That's no way to live."

-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Staff Writer Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or matus@sptimes.com .

Sue Lyon

TITLE: president, Tampa Homeowners, an Association of Neighborhoods; president, Bayshore Beautiful Homeowners Association

FAMILY: husband, Herb; dog, Sailor, a Weimaraner

HOBBY: globe-trotting

HIGH SCHOOL: Plant High

COLLEGE: East Texas State University, studied computer science and physics

BEST ASPECT OF SOUTH TAMPA: "Small-town atmosphere."

WORST ASPECT: "All the new development."

FAVORITE PART OF HER JOB: "Working through a problem."

LEAST FAVORITE: up to 30 phone calls a day.

WHY SHE'S A TREE FREAK: "They make the world calmer."

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