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Officials: We want depth of water woes explored

Code enforcers want to bypass warnings and just start fining scofflaws. But commissioners want Swiftmud to reconcile conflicting statements about the water supply.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2001


BROOKSVILLE -- Hernando County code enforcement officers made a simple request to commissioners Thursday: After more than six months of stricter watering restrictions, they wanted to stop warning violators and get straight to the fines. Residents have had ample time to learn the rules, Officer Frank McCabe said: "We just feel the time for warnings is over now."

Unlike their counterparts in other counties, commissioners said no. They had a bigger gripe about water use.

Southwest Florida Water Management District officials have said alternately that Hernando County has plenty of water for 20 years of development and that Hernando County does not have enough water to allow people to sprinkle their lawns.

"The basic question needs to be asked of Swiftmud, what are we doing here?" Commissioner Nancy Robinson said. "They say we have the water. We need to have some better rationale than (that) we're doing it for the counties to the south of us."

Without answers, commissioners refused to do anything to toughen their enforcement against people who water their yards when they're not supposed to.

Only Commissioner Mary Aiken disagreed with the board's stance. The county has new homes coming, she said, and not having its current residents use water responsibly seems improper.

"I think it's a very good habit to get into, to economize," Aiken said. "I believe it's good discipline. We're not going to get any rain until sometime in June."

That's exactly the point, Swiftmud spokesman Michael Molligan said.

Molligan acknowledged that district leaders have said Hernando County does not have a long-term water supply problem. But that prognosis does not make up for the short-term problems associated with two years of drought, he said.

Water levels in lakes, rivers and aquifers stand at record lows in all parts of the 16-county district, he said, and everybody is affected to some degree. In areas such as Tampa and North Port, the restrictions are even more drastic than in Hernando County and other places, Molligan noted.

Hernando County Administrator Paul McIntosh laughed when he heard that the water management district harbors worries that the aquifer is down about 3 feet from its normal level. McIntosh said the aquifer remains more than 90 percent filled, and suggested that's hardly a problem.

He said he would ask Swiftmud officials to address the commission's questions at a future meeting. Until that time, McIntosh said, the county enforcement rules will remain the same.

Also at the commission's Code Enforcement Department workshop, commissioners told officers to follow the county sign ordinance fully and not to ignore garage sale signs placed in the rights of way.

Officer Mark Caskie said the department was told in the fall to stop citing people who had placed the signs along roadways. If commissioners don't want the rule enforced, he said, they should remove it from the books.

Assistant County Attorney Kent Weissinger warned that if the county allows garage sale signs in the right of way, it will lose its ability to prohibit other types of signs in the same locations.

Commissioners did not welcome that prospect and agreed to have the rule enforced. They also urged code enforcement officers to use discretion when citing homeowners who might have problems removing the signs.

In 1999-2000, the department handled 4,919 sign violations, of which 3,061 involved garage sale signs. Only 449 homeowners were cited for garage sale sign violations.

Based on concerns raised by the department, commissioners also agreed to reconsider the language of its ordinance governing canvas canopies and carports. And, after hearing from residents who want to see more enforcement of code violations, the board agreed to consider adding staff to the department.

McDowell said he planned to request two more officers for his staff in the fiscal 2002 budget.

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