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By JADE JACKSON LLOYD
Walsingham Park neighbors defeat a property owner's bid for a strip of public land.
SEMINOLE - The heart of a north Seminole neighborhood beats along a grassy stretch of road between where the pavement ends and a park begins.
For decades, a 15- by 300-foot plot of land at the northern tip of Hazel Street has served as a meeting point for neighbors and a not so secret, safe passageway into the adjoining Walsingham Park.
Over the years, that parcel has created friends out of the families there. At a standing room-only City Council meeting Tuesday night, however, deciding the alley's fate left neighbor pitted against neighbor.
Joseph Papa,46, requested the city-owned public right of way, which runs alongside his 10550 Hazel St. front yard, be vacated to him and thus closed to the rest of his neighbors.
A street vacation results in land currently held by the city being returned to the private property from which it was originally dedicated to the public.
After reviewing Papa's application, the city staff recommended the council vacate the property based on four criteria: the vacation would not be in conflict with the city's comprehensive plan, landlock any residents, jeopardize current or future utilities or prove detrimental to the public interest.
Of the roughly 100 attendees, 32 spoke out against closing the road and four spoke in favor of it.
Swayed by the outpouring of public protest, council members voted unanimously to leave the land as is. (Council member Jimmy Johnson did not attend the meeting due to a death in his family.)
"We have an obligation to preserve your neighborhood the way you want it to be," said council member Patricia Hartstein, after hearing an hour and 45 minutes of public comment. "At this time, I don't feel justified in taking that away."
For Brian Hummer, 42, the area his wife calls "the farm" has been a part of his family for 25 years. The disputed land runs between his and Papa's property.
If the council had vacated the land to the Papas, it would have destroyed a "little piece of country road" that "has a long and significant history" in Seminole, Hummer said.
While his neighbors painted the right of way as a pristine and unspoiled patch of land, Papa said vagrants and careless passersby had left it tainted by dog feces, discarded beer cans and used condoms - all things he has been tasked with cleaning up.
Papa said the high-traffic parcel presents driving dangers, as well.
"One must back out onto a narrow road," said Papa, a Hazel Street resident for six years. "Sharing the road with pedestrians, kids and bikes is extremely difficult."
Papa said the road has allowed neighborhood pets access to attack his children's pet chickens and quail that are kept in cages in the yard.
"My little child saw that cage afterward," said Papa, of a particularly bloody attack. "It was horrible to see."
At times, speakers' impassioned pleas turned ugly.
One man, who referred to Papa as a "land grabber," said if the Papas replaced their "dilapidated, rotting fence" they wouldn't have a problem with dogs coming onto their property.
In response to Papa's complaints of picking up used condoms, one woman told him to look close to home for the source.
"I suggest he check on his own back yard and his own children to see if they left them there," said Bonita Lucas, of 10396 Nina St.
"That was low," several audience members called out.
"That was low and I know it," Lucas said, walking away from the microphone. (She apologized to both the Papa family and council members after the meeting.)
Others chose to appeal to council members' hearts.
"I'd like to see other kids in the future be able to enjoy what I had," said one 18-year-old resident. "I hope you don't take that away from them. ... We live in a great city. What's our city going to come to if you we can't have that?"
Ultimately, the council sided with the majority of those present to keep the path open and encouraged residents to work it out on a neighborhood level.
"I'm not for vacating this property," council member Pete Bengston said, to a round of applause. "There are problems with it, but they're problems that can be helped. ... We take things away from kids every day. We've got to give them something."
For the Papas, the council's vote offered no relief to their problem.
"It's a shame, (but) I'll live with it," said Papa's wife, Serena, 42, after the vote. Smiling, she added, "It will be fine. We'll come up with something."
- Jade Jackson Lloyd can be reached at 727 893-8410 or email@example.com[Last modified February 29, 2004, 01:15:11]
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