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Neighbors win this round against owner of 'nuisance' house

Neighbors say the home is an illegal boarding house filled with sexual predators and offenders.

By KEVIN GRAHAM
Published August 24, 2006

TAMPA - For years, Southeast Seminole Heights residents have complained to city officials about the brown and yellow home at 1303 E New Orleans Ave.

They called it a nuisance and said the owner had illegally operated it as a boarding house teeming with registered sexual predators and offenders.

On Wednesday, Tampa's code enforcement board sided with residents and deemed the home owned by Helen Pridgen a nuisance. But its members struggled with determining how much of a nuisance the home really was.

As part of their case against the home, residents presented the board with a Florida Department of Law Enforcement list of 13 predators and offenders claiming residence there. But Pridgen's attorney drew the board's attention to a video of a resident who claimed only two people lived there.

Board member Stanley Gray explained the quandary.

"If we go on what we saw on the tape, they're not guilty," Gray said. "My personal logic tells me that I assume these 13 people have physical ties there, and they're guilty."

In the next month, the city may find out for sure.

It gave the owner, Helen Pridgen, 30 days to comply. During this period, Pridgen agreed that code enforcement officers could make as many unannounced visits they want to see if they find a violation.

The board did vote that Pridgen violated a zoning ordinance that prohibits more than five unrelated people living in a home without a special permit.

Pridgen had a license to operate a boarding house, but when it expired in 2002, it was never renewed.

Ethan Loeb, Pridgen's attorney, argued that the city had not met its burden of proof that the homeowner or residents had broken any laws.

"The fact that neighbors are observing people is consistent with the fact that they're visiting," Loeb said of allegations that more than a dozen people regularly frequent the home.

But Loeb offered nothing more than the testimony from a resident on the videotape, which was recorded by a code enforcement officer and a supervisor inspecting the home earlier this week.

"I haven't approached these people, I haven't asked what they're doing there," Loeb said. "All I know is what I have seen and that there are two people living there."

The video, played during Wednesday's hearing at City Hall, showed stacks of bunk beds and mattresses against walls in several bedrooms. One room had as many as six beds stacked together.

Boxes of personal items covered with blankets and pillow cases were scattered throughout the home.

The sign on one room read "Captain's Quarters." In another bedroom were pots, a hot plate and a microwave oven.

Tampa police spokesman Larry McKinnon said officers go to the home regularly to verify the address of registered predators and offenders, making sure the information matches state records.

Earlier this month, McKinnon said, police issued arrest warrants for two people who lived at the house on New Orleans and didn't contact authorities with a new address. Predators and offenders have 48 hours to do so or be charged with a felony.

As they left Wednesday's meeting, neighbors who live near Pridgen's house said their fight to bring the home into compliance with city code isn't over.

"We're going to find out how many people on this list actually live there," said Sherry Genovar-Simons, president of the Southeast Seminole Heights Civic Association. "Anyone who doesn't, we're going to turn them in."

Times researchers Cathy Wos and John Martin contributed to this story. Kevin Graham can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or kgraham@sptimes.com.

[Last modified August 24, 2006, 01:17:56]


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