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Fines for watering may be revised

To help make watering rules more fair, the county is considering a stepped scale of fines for violators.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001


BROOKSVILLE -- Concerned that watering-restriction rules lack clarity, Hernando County officials plan to revise the fine structure for violations.

The current ordinance, adopted in 1985, says simply that second and subsequent violations would bring a fine up to $500, a jail sentence up to 60 days, or both. A proposed change would set fine amounts for second, third and fourth offenses before the maximum would go into effect.

"This is in steps, so people have a chance to comply," Commissioner Nancy Robinson said. "I think it's better to do it this way."

Such a move gained importance last week as the county began fining first-time offenders of watering restrictions. Previously, commissioners had instructed county administration not to go beyond warnings. Code Enforcement officers issued 18 $25 citations on Wednesday and Thursday.

The officers noticed that the county did not identify any fines between $25 and $500, and decided increments would be more fair to residents, Code Enforcement Director Frank McDowell III said.

"I know we've been educating the public for many, many months," McDowell said. "But there's still the possibility that someone makes a mistake out there. To go out there and tag somebody with a $500 (second) offense right off the bat, that's a little bit excessive to me."

The county remains serious about stopping people from sprinkling when it's not their turn, commission Chairman Chris Kingsley said. Homes with an address ending in 0 or 1 may water on Mondays, 2 or 3 on Tuesdays, 4 or 5 on Wednesdays, 6 or 7 on Thursdays, and 8, 9 or no address on Fridays. Watering may take place only before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m. No weekend watering is permitted.

To catch more people in the act, McDowell has staggered his officers' work hours to include evenings and weekends. Kingsley also has suggested offering a portion of the fine collections to the Sheriff's Office to encourage deputies to write more tickets.

County Administrator Paul McIntosh said he would bring the idea to Sheriff Richard Nugent. He noted, though, that the Sheriff's Office does a lot now to enforce water restrictions and it probably would not take incentives.

Nugent strenuously rejected the idea of incentives.

"We do not do things because we get some money out of it. I don't want ever to get in that position because then we look like a bounty hunter," he said. "We do it because the county asks us to do it, and because it's the right thing to do."

Deputies enforced the watering rules long before the county got serious, Nugent added. The Sheriff's Office policy had been to give two warnings and then a citation, while the county refused to go beyond warnings.

This year, deputies already have handled more than 200 complaints, Nugent said.

Now he's instructing them to "take appropriate action" if they see violations while not on emergency calls during their routine travels.

"We're going to do the same thing they're asking us," Nugent said.

Commissioners said they like the proposed fee structure.

"I don't think they're excessive, because people know how to control that -- don't turn on your water on the wrong days," Commissioner Diane Rowden said. "We probably should have done it several months ago."

Robinson supported the idea behind the staggered fines and the cooperation with the Sheriff's Office. If the county can get improved compliance with watering rules without adding more staff, she said, that's an ideal result.

If it doesn't work, she said, the commission can review the fines again.

Commissioners waited so long to begin fining violators because they wanted to have assurances from the Southwest Florida Water Management District that residents were not sacrificing so future development can thrive. They also wanted to know whether large-scale users such as golf courses and mines are subject to the same general rules as homeowners.

The rules apply equally, Swiftmud officials said.

At least seven other governments within the water management district have increased fines for watering restrictions this year. They are Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties and the cities of Tampa, New Port Richey, Punta Gorda and North Port.

A day after Hernando County committed to immediate fines, the Code Enforcement Department received dozens of calls that the Seven Hills subdivision was watering illegally on the median and pavement of Mariner Boulevard. Swiftmud and the Sheriff's Office also got several complaints about the same thing.

Sheriff's Deputy Frank Loreto Jr. investigated and found that the daily watering on the median was not illegal because the homeowners association recently had planted new grass plugs there.

Kingsley, who lives in Seven Hills, said he is not convinced that at least half the area being watered had been plugged, as the Swiftmud rule requires for extra watering.

He said he is looking into the matter further.

* * *

Hernando County commissioners will consider changing the fee structure for watering-restriction violations when they meet Tuesday. Currently, violators can be fined up to $500 for second and subsequent offenses. Proposed fines include:

Revising water fines

First offense $25

Second offense $100

Third offense $200

Fourth offense $300

Fifth offense* $500

* Plus a mandatory court appearance. Each fine also would include a $10.50 court cost.

Source: Hernando County Code Enforcement Department.

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