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Of a tennis court and a house that isn't a home

sandra thompson
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© St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2001

Last Monday night a group of neighbors dropped in at Beth and Bob Darr's house in South Tampa. Triscuits and cheese and punch were set out on their lovely screened deck. It was a group that well represents this neighborhood, Bayshore Beautiful, as you travel from the water to Himes. There are the new people -- mostly young professionals who live in big new houses -- and the old people, who live in modest homes and have considered this their neighborhood all their lives. What they all have in common is a tennis court.

No one denies it's a terrific tennis court -- clay surface, lights for night playing -- but they don't want it in their neighborhood.

Go take a look; it's on Wallcraft Avenue between MacDill and Himes.

It's strange to see a professional-looking tennis court on three lots on a residential street where most lots are 60 feet wide, if that. It's even stranger to see a court of this scope paired with a long, narrow, 1,300-square-foot house that will sit in front of it like a boxcar. Especially when the three lots cost $417,000 and the house doesn't have a bedroom but does have an observation deck.

On Monday the group met to hear John Grandoff, the lawyer hired by two of the neighbors, talk about his appeal to the Variance Review Board the next day.

The neighbors have real concerns about the thwack of tennis balls and the court's lights blazing into their windows at night. But what may rankle most is, in this neighborhood of single-family homes, it does not appear this house will become anyone's home. The two women building it already own lavish homes on Bayshore Boulevard and in Hyde Park, relegating the Wallcraft property to a playground.

It's just not neighborly.

No one has talked to the two women, Tammis Day and Susan Dendy. They have refused to meet with Grandoff and his clients. The women's Tampa lawyer, Steve Reynolds, was not able to put me in touch with them. But he did say he was disappointed in the appeals process, which excludes the property owners.

Grandoff's plan was to reverse the zoning administrator's approval of the building permit, which calls for a single-family house when, in fact, it appears to be a private recreational facility. The neighbors would not be able to speak at the meeting, but Grandoff stressed it would be good to show up for solidarity.

Several did. The hearing went on for an hour and 10 minutes. Kafka would have loved it.

Grandoff had brought a video of the tennis court and the house and how they relate to the surrounding neighborhood. The Variance Review Board members were impressed; apparently no one had ever come in with a video before.

But they wouldn't let Grandoff show the video.

He was not allowed to show stills either, or any evidence the zoning administrator had not either seen at the site, which she visited in February, or on the original permit application, which has since been revised to take out the interior walls in the house, making it a no-bedroom home.

So, pushing the facts aside, the board considered the case ad nauseam.

Zoning administrator Gloria Moreda defended her decision, saying that the city's lawyers tell her she must believe whatever anyone writes on a permit. If it says "single family house," it is a single-family house.

Even if it doesn't make sense.

Eventually board member John Dingfelder said: "We should remember why the city put us here -- as regular residents, to use our common sense. Our common sense would tell us this is a tennis court wagging a house behind it."

"The process doesn't allow for common sense," Rebecca Smith replied, shushing the neighbors in the audience who'd lost their patience.

Put to a vote, it was 3-3. A tie.

Tune in next month.

Except Grandoff will be out of town, so make that July.

- Sandra Thompson is a writer living in Tampa. City Life appears on Saturday.

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