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Leader's lot might lead him to court

Under new city rules, a council member accused of an unkempt lawn and unpaid penalties might face a judge.

By DAN DeWITT
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 15, 2003


BROOKSVILLE -- City Council member Joe Johnston III owes more than $45,000 in back taxes and code enforcement fees on 10 lots he owns in the Hill 'n Dale subdivision.

Two weeks ago, the county notified him that one of his lots is again in violation of a county law that requires grass on residential lots to be kept below 18 inches high.

If Johnston ignores this notice, as he has others in the past, it not only will cost him; he might end up in court, said county code enforcement director Frank McDowell.

The Code Enforcement Department recently adopted a new policy for dealing with property owners who chronically fail to maintain their yards; and it would affect Johnston, who is probably the worst offender in the county, McDowell said.

"I'm tired of babysitting his lots," said McDowell.

Previously, the county had mowed the lots and forwarded the expense to the property owner, along with fees for administration and inspection. If the amount went unpaid, it ended up as a lien on the property.

Now, landowners who fail to respond to a notice of violation will receive a citation that has the same legal impact as a traffic ticket. If they do not pay, they must appear before a judge to explain. The fine for the first offense is $115.50; the second is $215.50; and the third is $500.

If the owners fail to pay the fines, they could be charged with contempt of court, McDowell said.

That will not happen, said Johnston, who added that he did not know about the new policy and had not yet received the notice of violation.

"That's interesting," Johnston said about the rules changes. "I probably will have to change how I deal with it."

Johnston bought the lots in 1990 because he thought the Wal-Mart Distribution Center in Ridge Manor West, which was then in the planning stages, would bring an increased demand for affordable housing to the east side of the county. A contract with a builder went sour, he said, and the market for the property was not as strong as he had expected.

In addition to owing $26,654 in code enforcement fees, Johnston owes $18,507 in back property taxes on his property. In an interview last year, he said he hoped to sell the property for the value of the liens.

That might happen soon, he said, even though the amount of the liens is steadily rising and the value of lots in Hill 'n Dale has declined in recent years. Four years ago, the county Property Appraiser's Office estimated the worth of Johnston's parcels at $4,200 apiece; their appraised value is now $3,520 each.

A Pasco County real estate agent has found some potential buyers "who are apparently looking for investment property up here," Johnston said.

McDowell said that he and other code enforcement staffers decided to stiffen the penalties for violating the yard maintenance ordinance at the start of the spring.

"We met with the (county) attorney's office, and after reviewing the ordinance we determined we should try this avenue and see how it works out," McDowell said.

He said several landowners have repeatedly ignored bills the county sends for mowing lots, but that Johnston owes more in back fees than anyone else he knows of.

"It's not just him," McDowell said. "But he does have a pile of liens."

-- Dan DeWitt covers the city of Brooksville, politics and the environment. He can be reached at 754-6116. Send e-mail to dewitt@sptimes.com .

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