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County may revisit fines policy

Code Enforcement says residents should be familiar with watering rules by now, prompting commissioners to reconsider fines for violators.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 8, 2001


BROOKSVILLE -- When it comes to penalizing illegal lawn watering, Hernando County has bucked the trend.

All of its neighbors fine first-time offenders to deter off-schedule sprinkling; several recently increased their charges after the Southwest Florida Water Management District issued tight restrictions to protect a dwindling drinking-water supply.

Only Hernando County commissioners have challenged Swiftmud's doom-and-gloom predictions.

For first offenses, they have refused to go beyond warnings. They have demanded more details from Swiftmud about the water supply before deciding whether to issue first-violation fines, despite get-tough advice from their own Code Enforcement Department.

That posture soon could change.

A month and 104 warnings after Code Enforcement officers said residents have had enough time to learn the rules, some commissioners want to reconsider. Three say they might bring the issue back to the board this week. "I don't think we should ignore this problem," Commissioner Diane Rowden said last week, noting that the region is settling into a third year of drought. "Why have these ordinances or rules if you're not going to enforce them? I think we should increase the fines."

Golf courses frequently break the rules, which ban watering between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., right along with many homeowners, said Commissioner Betty Whitehouse, who also is calling for action. All should be held to the same standard, she said.

"It can't just be to residents," Whitehouse said. "You have to really look at, is business doing its share, too? I've gotten some complaints from people."

Rowden and Whitehouse join the position of Commissioner Mary Aiken, who in February stood alone accepting Code Enforcement's recommendation. Aiken remains firm in her resolve.

"I was upset at the time. I remember saying it was an irresponsible reaction" by the other commissioners, she said. "I think we've all got to discipline ourselves with the use of water."

Each has said she wants the commission to talk further about the issue, and the sooner the better. A workshop with Swiftmud is set for April 17.

If the commission makes an about-face on water issues, it will not be the first time.

When other counties and cities reluctantly were adopting once-a-week watering rules last April, Hernando County claimed its water problems weren't so bad and asked Swiftmud for permission to keep its twice-a-week rule. Swiftmud leaders greeted that proposal with a resounding thud, and Hernando quickly backed down.

An initial round of enforcement led to 1,325 warnings and 57 fines of $25 for second violations. Three people went to court for third violations, which carry a heftier fine of up to $500 and a possible six-month jail term.

Then the county slowed activity for what was supposed to be the rainy season. Few warnings went out, and water use remained high.

County Administrator Paul McIntosh admitted in November that the idea flopped, and again kicked the enforcement effort into gear. He authorized Code Enforcement to stagger its officers' hours to catch more violators.

The number of warnings jumped again to 200 in November and 170 in December.

In March, the commission approved higher seasonal water rates for households using more than 15,000 gallons of water a month. The goal was to cut down overuse. Utilities Director Kay Adams said the move was necessary because the drought had many people watering their lawns who ordinarily would not be doing so, and sprinkling usually begins to increase in March when stores start advertising fertilizer.

She worried that the confluence of factors could push the county past its water-permit limits.

Still, the commission refused to take that next step of imposing fines on first-time violators.

Just days before raising the rates, Commissioner Nancy Robinson questioned the propriety of penalizing residents for watering when Swiftmud was saying that the county had enough water for 20 years of new development. The rest of the commission, except Aiken, agreed.

Now they're not so sure that was the right move.

As counties all over Florida are increasing fines and enforcement, and water management districts are calling for an end to all "wasteful and unnecessary" water use, some Hernando County commissioners say they are seeing themselves as part of the bigger picture.

Sure, Rowden said, there might be problems inherent in stricter penalties, not the least of which is a courtroom packed with water scofflaws like the one Hillsborough County recently endured. That's the price the county might have to pay, though, she and some colleagues now say.

"This definitely needs to be addressed," Rowden said.

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