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City to judge troubled residence

Spurred by complaints of rat and raccoon infestations, officials are to decide what to do about it.

By ERIC STIRGUS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2001


Spurred by complaints of rat and raccoon infestations, officials are to decide what to do about it.

LARGO -- Her tenants say she is a caring woman who has done the best she can to fix up some tattered units that were damaged by former tenants.

Her neighbors say she is a negligent landlord who has allowed her properties to get in such bad shape they have become a breeding ground for rodents and raccoons.

The residents who make up the city's Code Enforcement Board will decide today which portrait of Betty Long is most accurate.

A tearful Long said Thursday she did not know a hearing was scheduled for today and declined further comment.

The controversy over her property dates back to June 1997, when the board first heard the case. Frustrated property owners, whose homes abut Long's rental units at 1388 Belcher Road S, complained that the city has been lax in following up on the situation.

"The city kind of dropped the ball on this," said Chuck Andrews, a neighbor.

City officials say they lost track when one person who monitored the case retired and another left due to illness. Those employees worked for the city's Community Development Department. Code enforcement issues now are handled by the Police Department.

"It kind of fell through the cracks," said Largo police Lt. Glen Smith, who is in charge of code enforcement.

The driveway to 1388 Belcher Road S is made of gravel and dirt. The rest of the grounds are grass. A duplex sits to the left of the driveway. A damaged small home lies on the other side. About a half-dozen rusty trailers are on the left side of the driveway. A small stable is farther back to the right. The units are on about 2 1/2 acres.

Long has owned the property since 1972. She rents out the trailers and the homes. Green graffiti stain the walls of one home. The carpets and bathrooms of several other units are in need of repair or replacement.

"They just tore them apart," said resident Michael Jones.

After watching Long move items back and forth from the property, Jones offered a hand. He now helps her fix up the units. Jones showed repairs to one trailer, which boasts a new leather sofa and chair set.

Jones and other tenants say they have not seen any raccoons or rats on the property.

Smith said he has seen sinks, toilets, piles of wood and plastic on Long's property. Thursday, an open refrigerator sat on the grounds.

"It's been that way for quite a few years," said Smith. "It's quite a mess."

Jones said some items have been left outside so that interior repairs could be made.

"This woman has been trying to do everything they want her to do," he said. "It takes time to put these places together."

After the code enforcement board ruled in the city's favor in 1997, Long fought the city in court. A 2nd District Court of Appeal judge ruled in favor of the city in spring 1999, said Smith.

The issue was brought back to the city's attention about six months ago through a report of persistent problems. There were complaints of rats, raccoons and opossums coming from Long's property onto homes along Kimpton Place.

"It's been unreal," said Andrews, who built a fence in his back yard.

Police are hoping the code enforcement board will demand that Long clean up the property in 30 days or fine her $500 each subsequent day she is not in compliance with city codes.

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