City backs away from troubled park

Code enforcement might be hampered by looming lawsuits.

By LORRI HELFAND, Times Staff Writer
Published December 18, 2007

LARGO - A year ago, the city responded aggressively to complaints of substandard living conditions at the Sunpiper Mobile Home Park.

City inspectors condemned 13 of 66 homes and cited the park's owners for 150 violations, including having exposed electrical wiring, leaking sewage and tenants without electricity.

But in recent months, things have changed. And the new approach may have delayed attention to what city officials now see as a safety hazard at the park at 1760 Clearwater-Largo Road.

After last year's crackdown, Sunpiper's owners sued Largo, appealing the condemnation and challenging the city's jurisdiction to enforce its codes. They contend that the park's previous owner did not consent to the park's annexation into the city in 2005.

In an attempt to end the litigation, city officials recently took an extraordinary step. They offered to de-annex the park if the park's owners would drop their suits against the city.

Meanwhile, the legal action has prompted staff to enforce only codes at the park that involve "life safety" issues, said city building official Ken Andrews.

That was news to City Manager Norton "Mac" Craig and City Attorney Alan Zimmet.

"I'm not sure where he's getting that from," Zimmet said. "It's not from me."

The issue came to light after park resident John Celentano complained that his neighbor's power was tapped into his electric meter.

After learning of the complaint 11 days ago, code enforcement staff initially told Celentano it wasn't a violation and referred him to Progress Energy.

But after learning of Celentano's complaint from the Times last week, the city manager demanded immediate attention.

"Whatever we need to do to get it fixed, we'll do," Craig said Thursday.

On Friday, nine days after Celentano first complained to code enforcement supervisor Pete Jensen face-to-face, the park was cited for an electrical code violation.

"This is an illegal circuit splice," the city's notice of violation said. "Also a life safety hazard."

Until last week, Celentano said he had gotten the runaround. And he's not the only tenant with concerns:

- Jennifer Holt, 39, who pays $665 a month for her two-bedroom trailer, said she has persistent plumbing problems, a flimsy bathroom floor and a kitchen sink that has sunk more than an inch below the countertop. One wall of her unit also tore apart when she tried to hang a curtain rod that was too heavy, she said.

- Barbara Willardo, 39, who pays $600 a month, covered a hole in her kitchen wall with a board. She said her front door sometimes flies open even when locked.

Owner Andrea Trani said she wasn't aware of Celentano's complaint about his electric meter. And of other tenants' complaints, she said, "no one there that pays their rent has a maintenance issue."

Along with suing the city, the park's owners have changed the park's name to No Go Largo Village in protest of city code enforcement actions.

Celentano, 51, said he noticed that his neighbor's power was tapped into his electric meter just before Thanksgiving.

Progress Energy inspected his meter Nov. 21 and then again Dec. 6 and determined no one had tampered with elements that belong to the company, said spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs.

Celentano then complained to Largo police. They visited the park, developed no suspects and sent their report to city code enforcement supervisor Jensen.

Jensen spoke with Celentano on the phone, and he met with him in person 11 days ago. He provided Celentano with a phone number for Progress Energy.

Celentano then called the Times. He said he thought the power hookup might be a fire hazard.

"I'm worried about the kids," he said. "I don't want to see any kids get killed."

On Nov. 30, a Times reporter asked Jensen and Andrews about Celentano's concerns, which included other complaints.

"He needs to put those issues in writing and our legal counsel will advise my next action," Andrews said.

Celentano's concern about the power wasn't a code violation, Jensen said. And both Jensen and his boss questioned whether Celentano, who was recently fired as a handyman, was simply a disgruntled former employee.

On Nov. 30, Celentano told Jensen there also were code problems at Braginton Oaks, another mobile home park just south of No Go Largo under the same ownership.

Later that day, Jensen visited No Go Largo. Celentano brought up theelectric meter again, but it was not addressed until one week later, after the city manager asked Jensen's boss to look into it.

After Celentano pointed out a missing sewer cap and missing panel in a breaker box, Jensen asked a park maintenance worker to fix those problems.

At Braginton Oaks, Jensen wrote up violations involving seven units. The violations included trash and debris near units and around the park, three units with missing or broken windows and an extension cord running from one unit to another.

Meanwhile, the attorney for No Go Largo's owners wants until Monday to respond to the city's offer to settle the lawsuit.

Trani didn't say what the response would be, but she indicated that she wants to be compensated for her hardship.

"If they do want to settle it, fine. I am a business person," she said. "But settle it and we eat this first year of terror that we've been through? No."

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or 445-4155.