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Courts add muscle to code enforcement

Judges can fine repeat offenders and liens can be placed against their property.

By ANDREW MEACHAM
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 23, 2003


ST. PETERSBURG -- Hampered by defiant owners of delinquent properties, city codes officials are looking for help from the courts. And the past few years have produced more results in getting owners to shape up their properties, codes director Sally Eichler said Wednesday.

The Codes Compliance Assistance Department can fine owners for violations to the outsides of their properties, Eichler told the Council of Neighborhood Associations. To illustrate her point, Eichler circulated photos of yards littered with debris. Old tires. Discarded televisions. Lawn mowers. A pile of blocks, representing some project gone fallow. A car parked on the sidewalk.

A judge can fine repeat offenders $500.

"It could start with a $35 violation," Eichler said, adding that some owners have paid up to $2,000 rather than fix the problem.

Owners who don't pay can have a lien placed against their property. But a state statute puts the city last in line behind other claims to the property. Last month, the city won a court judgment to enforce its lien on a property with violations dating to 1993 and which had been condemned in 2000.

There were no prior liens on that property, Eichler said. The owner has 60 days from the order to satisfy the terms of the lien, or lose the property to foreclosure.

For some time now, the city's codes and legal officials have been trying to find ways to strengthen the city's hand against offending properties. Codes inspectors cannot enter a dwelling except in certain circumstances, such as when invited by a tenant in a rental property. Eichler would like to see a new ordinance allowing codes officials to inspect the interior of properties that have a sufficient number of outside violations to arouse reasonable suspicion.

The administrative warrant the city is seeking would require a new ordinance that would function the same as a search warrant, indicating that officials have probable cause to enter.

Public nuisance statutes offer another possible way to get past absentee landlords and indifferent owners who rack up violations year after year. A test case for enforcing codes because a property endangers other properties goes to court March 28, Eichler said.

Mark Winn, a chief assistant city attorney who has worked with Eichler on code problems, said Friday that having old appliances and rusted auto parts in the yard is unsightly and could affect property values. "It's not clearly defined as it applies to codes, so we may be making new law in an area where it hasn't been used before," Winn said.

Codes inspectors average 260 cases, Eichler said, out of which 200 tend to pay their fines and fix their properties. "Repeat offender cases are in the minority, but they take up the bulk of your time," she said.

* * *

Adam Cornett, 16, might make Eagle Scout. The Boca Ciega High School junior has engineered a city grant, a construction company's donated time and materials and the help of other Boy Scouts and neighbors to build a pavilion in Fossil Park. The group finished the project Sunday.

Cornett said he came up with the idea three years ago while talking to his mother, current Fossil Park Neighborhood Association president Karen Mullins.

At the time, workers were completing a large playground in the northwest portion of the park. Cornett noticed it needed a covered area with a picnic table, similar to other pavilions throughout the park. He also knew requirements for Eagle Scout include leading others in a project to benefit the community.

The community helped. Huber Enterprises contributed materials and labor worth $17,000. The Neighborhood Partnership came through with a grant. The project cost about $44,000, Mullins said.

About seven people showed up in December to pour the slab. Up to 20 volunteers arrived for two work days in February, to put up the iron structure and metal roof. They finished the roof Sunday.

Fifteen minutes later, a family arrived asking if they could use the pavilion immediately for a child's birthday party.

* * *

What can citizens do to strengthen their neighborhoods? How can the city develop and keep a first-rate police force with high morale? These and other questions are sure to come up at a public meeting Saturday, 9 a.m.-noon at Bay Vista Recreation Center, 7000 Fourth St. S. Brent Fisher, president of CONA, said the focus will not be limited to any single issue. The event is not limited to CONA members. A continental breakfast will be served.

Meetings

BAYOU HIGHLANDS: 7 p.m. Thursday (6:30 social). Coquina Key Resource Center, 435 45th Ave. S. Park operations manager Cliff Footlick.

COQUINA KEY: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. Clubhouse, 3850 Pompano Drive SE. Officer elections.

CROMWELL HEIGHTS: 6 p.m. Wednesday. Enoch Davis Center, 1111 18th Ave. S. Open forum. Sandra Parker, Pinellas County Urban League.

EUCLID HEIGHTS: 7 p.m. Tuesday. First Alliance Church, 5000 10th St. N. Bill Sanders, executive director, Keep Pinellas Beautiful.

LAKE MAGGIORE SHORES: 7 p.m. Thursday (6 p.m. crime prevention meeting). Enoch Davis Center, 1111 18th Ave. S. Meeting with Cromwell Heights, Fruitland Heights neighborhoods on proposed wireless communications tower at Lakeview Presbyterian Church, 1310 22nd Ave. S.

LAKEWOOD ESTATES: 7 p.m. Tuesday. Lakewood United Church of Christ, 2601 54th Ave. S. Rep. Frank Peterman, D-St. Petersburg.

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