Tampa Bay columnists
Mary Jo Melone
World & Nation
AP The Wire
Comics & Games
Home & Garden
Advertise with the Times
Officials plan to tidy up properties
By EDIE GROSS
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 7, 2000
Used to be, the most common complaint Larry Lara heard was that someone had failed to mow a vacant lot in the far reaches of North Pinellas.
Twenty years later, most of those vacant lots have disappeared beneath subdivisions and shopping centers, and the world of code enforcement in unincorporated Pinellas County has grown more complex.
The complaints Lara and nine fellow code enforcement officers receive are endless and varied: A man is operating a used car lot out of his front yard. A developer whacked down a thicket of protected mangroves. My neighbor has a kangaroo in her back yard or a Shetland pony in her living room.
"You could see the horse inside the house through the picture window," recalled Lara, who said that instance actually turned out not to be a violation.
Busy responding to residents' complaints, the officers have traditionally been unable to generate their own cases. If they see a code violation while driving through a neighborhood, often they have to ignore it to see to the rest of their caseload.
That is about to change.
Commissioners want code enforcement officers out looking for obvious but unreported violations, not just responding to complaints. Residents who call commissioners are increasingly concerned about the way their neighborhoods and the areas around them look.
Commissioners say they can see the problem for themselves as they drive from cities into unincorporated areas. Cities with proactive code enforcement departments appear attractive while county properties look a bit scruffy.
"You drive around the county and the cities, and you see fairly stark contrasts, and that's cause for concern," said Commissioner Sallie Parks. "We want to have a community that looks buffed and polished. The code just doesn't get enforced as well in the county."
The county has only 10 code enforcement officers to cover the 120 square mile unincorporated area, which spreads from East Lake down to the fringes of St. Petersburg. Those officers will have handled 3,845 cases and made 14,600 site visits by the time the budget year ends on Sept. 30.
To improve the county's appearance, commissioners say they support hiring more code enforcement officers. Only five officers worked for the Environmental Management Department in 1998. That number has since been doubled, and department Director Will Davis is asking for four more in the coming budget year.
He hopes to add five more the year after that.
"For years, the board of county commissioners set a policy for our department that we pursue code enforcement on a complaint basis," Davis said. "That essentially told us that as officers ride the roads, they have blinders on short of something we thought was a safety issue. We're going to a proactive code enforcement.
"It is not necessarily . . . walking through a subdivision, looking inside yards, peeking over fences," he said. "What we're talking about is when we're going through a neighborhood and we see a violation in the front yard, we'll stop and pick it up."
In addition to stepping up enforcement, the county plans to re-examine its codes to make sure they are strong enough, Davis said.
The changing landscape of the county demands such enforcement, Lara said. Once-new subdivisions have aged, ushering in building code violations and aesthetic problems. The county has grown more crowded, and the 902,000 people who live here are not always adept at cleaning up after themselves.
"Now is the dawning of the age of code enforcement," Lara said. "It wasn't as necessary before."
City code enforcement officials said they were glad to hear the county would step up the pressure on violators. They are unable to enforce city rules on the small enclaves of unincorporated land within their boundaries.
Kevin Campbell, director of Community Services in Dunedin, said he gets phone calls occasionally from residents complaining about the condition of those properties. He tells them to call the county.
"There were some cases we thought were over the top, so we called," he said.
Dunedin has one code enforcement officer covering the 10-square-mile city. He responds to complaints and hunts for violations as well, Campbell said.
"Years ago, we used to be reactive, but it really comes back to haunt you," he said. "You deal with one individual and he can point out 10 people doing the same thing. Why are we picking on him? We decided if we're going to clean this up, we need to be proactive."
About 51 percent of the cases in Clearwater are generated by the officers. The rest result from residents' complaints, said Jeff Kronschnabl, Development Services director. The city's seven officers handled more than 5,000 cases last year.
"The best way to find (the violation) is the proactive way because you find it before a complaint call comes in and it annoys someone," said Kronschnabl, who also hears complaints about unincorporated properties within Clearwater. "I'm glad to see (the county) is beefing up that process. I get calls for enclave properties all the time."
St. Petersburg's code enforcement team used to patrol the city for violations more than it does now, said Sally Eichler, the city's codes compliance assistance director. In the last six to seven years, officers have met with neighborhood groups, encouraging them to police their surroundings and call in complaints themselves.
"It used to be that code enforcement would need to be surveying and hunting down code enforcement cases. Now, we are, to an extent, complaint-driven," she said. "The complaints are generated from individual citizens who in recent years have become better educated by the city on what they can and can't do in a neighborhood. I think they're feeling empowered to call."
The city's 29 full-time investigators handled 32,000 investigations last year and 90,000 site inspections. Most of the cases were resolved without the involvement of the city's code board or the courts.
Kronschnabl said code enforcement in Clearwater sometimes encourages criminal activity to move along. In St. Petersburg, it spurs economic development, Eichler said.
"It's not just let's use code enforcement to get people to do what we want them to do," she said. "The city has a larger strategy."
The county's strategy: Make the unincorporated sections of Pinellas look cared for. That means cracking down on residents who leave inoperable cars on their front lawns, operate businesses illegally out of their homes and allow buildings to fall into disrepair.
"We have to make sure the citizens in the unincorporated area enjoy the same quality of life as the people in the cities vis-a-vis beauty and cleanup," said Commissioner Calvin Harris.
Otherwise, said Parks, those residents may be tempted to join a nearby city.
"You're looking for an attractive look, a tidy look, a clean look. Some neighborhoods might need a little buffing and polishing," she said. "We don't ever want the unincorporated area to look dramatically different in a negative kind of way."
Code enforcement officers plan to start the proactive efforts this summer, Davis said. That pleases residents who have complained in the past of poor conditions in their neighborhoods.
James Blackwell and his wife, Natalie, called code enforcement officers two years ago about a neighbor who had stored junk in his yard. The yard was cleaned and a new house has been built on that spot.
Now Blackwell has his eye on a few more neighbors.
"It's starting to improve," he said of his community near Seminole. "But there's several properties down 98th Way that need some help."
Barbara Mendelsohn said she's glad code enforcement officers will be keeping an extra eye on her neighborhood near Dunedin. Mendelsohn reported a neighbor's property last year after a septic tank overflowed, attracting rats. As it turned out, the rental property belonged to U.S. Rep. Michael Bilirakis, who has since straightened out the mess.
Conditions will not deteriorate to that point if code enforcement officers are watching more closely, Mendelsohn said.
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.