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Enforcing codes demands balance

Published March 2, 2004

Antoinette Stavropoulos' case is atypical for code enforcement.

The height of the grass at her Pennsylvania Avenue home in New Port Richey is the center of the dispute. Stavropoulos, the city said, was slow to act on requests to mow the lawn. The grass reached 3 feet in the back yard and a foot tall out front. She had been cited before for the same problem.

Finally, the city said, mow the lawn or appear before the Code Enforcement Board and pay $150. Stavropoulos ignored that ultimatum more than 21/2 years ago and now faces a fine that accumulates $200 every day. The total, approaching $193,000, is nearly triple the appraised value of her $65,000 house.

The fine is ludicrous. Since the lawn has been cut, the fine should stop accumulating and the city should allow Stavropoulos the opportunity to pay off her lien at 1 percent of the total, or about $1,930, when she wants to sell the property. It is a practice used commonly by Pasco County commissioners to settle outstanding code enforcement cases.

Make no mistake, however, Stavropoulos' inaction is the reason for her dilemma. She had been cited in the past for weeds, trash, an abandoned vehicle and broken windows.

She blamed poor health and financial considerations, but her track record is what led to its get-tough approach. Unkempt lawns are more than just unsightly nuisances because they attract rodents and snakes.

While the amount of the fine is absurd, the city's attempt to stimulate private property beautification is not. It became more aggressive in its code enforcement in the past few years.

It is a worthwhile investment, particularly since code enforcement had been cited in the past as a city shortcoming. A half-dozen years ago, for instance, residents complained the city was slow to act on a vacant house that showed signs of rat infestation. Code enforcement emerged as a campaign issue then and in nearly every municipal election since.

Most cases don't reach the extreme level of Stavropoulos' situation. In fact, only 7 percent reach the code enforcement board, down from 13 percent two years ago. The city maintains that is an indication of its effectiveness.

Still, the city must balance beautification with the bottom line of its residents. There is little incentive to try to maintain property properly once the financial penalty hits such unrealistic levels. What's the use of having more than $1.4-million of fines levied if the city only collected 7 percent of that last year?

The cleanup is welcome, but it shouldn't accompany a cleanout of residential wallets.

[Last modified March 2, 2004, 01:44:59]

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