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Rules begin to spring leaks

Water cops can write citations only when sprinklers spray, hoses jet or fountains flow. "The trick is being there when it happens."

By STEVE HUETTEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 10, 2000


TAMPA -- Water cop Victor Taylor cruises South Tampa looking for glistening lawns and telltale hoses snaking into flower beds.

He finds three violations in the first two hours of his Thursday evening patrol. None requires any detective work: a Hyde Park woman spraying potted plants, a fountain blasting at the city's Fred Ball Park and a man hosing down his lawn in Virginia Park.

The lawn waterer barely looks up as Taylor leans out the window of his white city pickup truck with the flashing yellow light on top. "Sir, are you aware this is a non-watering day in the city of Tampa?"

"Yep," he replies and keeps on soaking the grass.

Since the city tightened water restrictions March 16, inspectors have written about 700 citations -- an average of 44 each day they patroled. Each citation carries a $35 fine, plus $7 in administrative and court costs.

Violators have included the new Tampa Marriott Waterside hotel, Tampa Palms Golf & Country Club, Memorial Hospital's rehabilitation center, automobile dealer Carl Lindell Jr. and dozens of residents in Hunter's Green and Davis Islands.

But inspectors and city water officials admit they're catching only a fraction of the people and businesses breaking the rules.

On this Thursday evening, Taylor is assigned to an area that stretches across the Interbay Peninsula from Kennedy Boulevard south to Bay to Bay Boulevard.

He covers a lot of ground during the four-hour shift. But he can write a citation only if he sees sprinklers spraying, fountains flowing or people using hoses to water landscaping or wash cars.

"Many times we pass homes and see sprinkles on the lawn or the sidewalks wet, but we can't do anything about it," says Taylor, who works for a contractor hired by the city. "The trick is being there when it happens."

Water scofflaws are getting harder to catch, he says. Taylor increasingly sees garden hoses suspiciously placed in landscape beds and on new sod. People's ears prick up when he mentions that his shift ends at 10 p.m.

"I think people are getting smarter about (illegal) watering. I think people are finding new ways not to get cited," Taylor says.

City water officials admit there are holes in their enforcement net.

Inspectors don't work on two permitted watering days, Sunday for odd number addresses and Tuesday for even number addresses. Until this week, no crews were assigned between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m.

About six employees of contractor Volt Viewtech, a company the city hired to catch violators, work the five non-watering days, says Angel Toro, the company's project manager.

They target South Tampa and New Tampa neighborhoods that have the city's highest concentration of large lawns with automatic sprinkler systems, says India Williams, the city's consumer affairs manager.

Water department field workers also carry citation books. But they're usually busy with their regular duties and have written up few violators, she says.

"We are seeing some evidence of non-compliance," Williams says. "Realistically, we can't be everywhere, no matter how many people we have out there."

Water cops catch the most violators on Saturdays and Wednesdays -- legal watering days until the city cut back to once-a-week irrigation.

They wrote 76 citations March 18, the first Saturday after the new rules went into effect. Last Wednesday, they issued 58.

Still, lots of city residents wonder how so many homeowners and businesses can water with impunity.

Chuck Lindeke, facility manager at Hyde Park United Methodist Church, was amazed to see seven businesses with sprinklers running on Swann Avenue between Dale Mabry Highway and Hyde Park as he drove to work on a recent Saturday morning.

"There were these puddles where the sprinklers were going," he says. "I'm still seeing people washing cars."

Meanwhile, his church was cited March 29 for watering new landscaping, although the city granted it a variance the week before.

The Times reviewed 75 tickets written March 29, 30 and 31. About two-thirds of those citations went to residences, one-third to businesses.

Watering violations went to Kash n' Karry on W Swann Avenue, Tampa Palms Golf & Country Club, Checkers on Bearss, NationsBank on W Henderson Boulevard, Sam's Club on S Dale Mabry Highway and the Memorial Hospital's rehabilitation center on W Swann Avenue.

Citations for running fountains were issued to the Tampa Marriott Waterside, the Tampa Palms Community Development District and three New Tampa apartment complexes -- St. Croix Apartments, Oak Ramble Apartments and Sunpoint Lake Apartments.

Lindell, owner of Lindell Motors Inc., got a citation for a fountain running in the yard of his Culbreath Isles home. Lindell wasn't aware the fountain broke the city's regulations, he said, and it was turned off once he received the citation by certified mail.

Some city officials were red-faced over the fountain at Fred Ball Park on Bayshore Boulevard, the first instance under the current restrictions when the city cited itself.

"That's very, very frustrating," Williams says. "We're doing everything we can to save water. We like to think we're doing the best we can do."

Henry McGriff, deputy director of the parks department, said Friday the device looks like a fountain but is actually an aerator that keeps the spring-fed pool from becoming a stagnant breeding ground for mosquitoes.

The aerator was shut off and will remain off until his department receive a variance from the city, he said.

- Times researcher Connie Humburg contributed to this report. Steve Huettel can be reached at (813) 226-3384, or at huettel@sptimes.com.

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