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Tents 'could kill somebody'

Unlike surrounding cities, Tampa restricts use of home gazebos. Some are unaware of this law just when the barbecue and mosquito seasons heat up.

By JANET ZINK
Published May 22, 2006


TAMPA — Crystal Votzke likes to entertain friends and family with outdoor barbecues at her Port Tampa home.

But there are complications.

“Mosquitoes are horrendous out here,” she said.

She thought she found a solution to the problem: A gazebo with screens that zip up on all four sides, purchased at Big Lots for about $200.

Problem solved? Not quite.

A month after putting the structure up next to her house, code enforcement officials issued Votzke a citation.

Votzke has a cautionary tale for those getting their back yards and decks in order for the summer. In the city of Tampa, the ubiquitous garden tents — a staple of discount and garden store catalogs this time of year —- might get you in trouble.

“It’s a health, safety and welfare issue,” said Curtis Lane, director of Tampa’s code enforcement department. Other local jurisdictions don’t regulate the tents, but Tampa has concerns.

High winds could hurl the tent down the street, turning the poles into deadly missiles, Lane said.

“If you’re in the way, Lord have mercy on you,” he said. “It could kill somebody.”

“If a hurricane was coming, of course we would take it down,” Votzke said.

But according to city code regulating tents, structures smaller than 10-by-10 feet can only remain in place for a total of 30 days in any calendar year. Larger tents require a permit.

Some of the small tents are easily collapsible, but Votzke’s requires screws to hold together the aluminium corner posts embellished with leaves. Her sister and other family members spent two hours putting it together.

Stores should warn people in Tampa that the structures can’t stay up, said Votzke.

“It’s just people wasting their money,” Votzke said.

Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse on S Dale Mabry Highway sells 10-foot-by-10-foot picnic canopies for $179.
Store manager George Ferre said he wasn’t aware of the Tampa regulations.

“Homeowners have the responsibility to know what’s allowed in their neighborhoods,” he said. Cities have rules, just as gated communities have deed restrictions that regulate yard decorations.

“There’s no way for me to know where you live,” he said.

Tampa apparently stands alone with its code regulating small tents.

Sally Eichler, codes compliance director for St. Petersburg, said large canopies, often used to protect cars or boats, require a permit in the city.

But there are no rules regulating what some call “screen rooms.”

“The expectation is that it would be taken down in preparation for any kind of a storm or high wind,” she said. “It makes more sense to go after the big things and let people have a dining fly.”

Larry Lara, code enforcement program manager for Pinellas County, chuckled when he heard about Tampa’s rules.

“There’s different community standards for different communities, but my gosh,” he said, then apologized for making light of Tampa’s regulations.

“That code’s a bit more restrictive than what we have here,” he said. “Here in Pinellas County, if it was in the back yard, we would have no problem with it. There would be no time limit on it.”

Hillsborough County doesn’t regulate the structures, either.

“They would be treated as accessory structures,” said Jim Blinck, field supervisor for housing and community code enforcement in Hillsborough.

“If it’s in the back yard, all that’s required is that it be placed 3 feet from the property line. But there’s no restriction on how long it can be on the property.”

Lane said code enforcement officers in Tampa aren’t driving around looking for the tents. Citations for this type of violation usually come in response to a neighborhood complaint. Typically, an inspector will drive by to see if the tent is there, and then look again in 30 days to see whether it’s still up.

“You cannot leave those things up,” he said. “You can’t use them as a permanent fixture. It’s as simple as that. It’s a danger.”
Votzke, who has been cited by code enforcement four times since 1998 for violations ranging from having an overgrown yard to inoperable vehicles on her property, has to take the tent down by May 26.

She said she’ll do it, but she’s not happy about it.

“You should be able to enjoy your yard. It’s bad enough taxes have doubled around here. We work hard,” Votzke said. “We just want to be able to enjoy a picnic without mosquitoes.”

Janet Zink can be reached at (813) 226-3401 or jzink@sptimes.com.

[Last modified May 22, 2006, 23:11:07]


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