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Expense, shame reign in dry times


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 13, 2001

TAMPA PALMS -- Like a lot of homeowner groups, the Tampa Palms Owners Association is not shy about taking residents to task for breaking the rules.

TAMPA PALMS -- Like a lot of homeowner groups, the Tampa Palms Owners Association is not shy about taking residents to task for breaking the rules.

But two months ago the association had its own mistakes to answer for. On March 9 the group received a city citation for irrigating a Compton Park soccer field on a day when watering is not permitted. The enforcer noted that it was raining at the time.

The result was a $207 fine.

"It was an accident," said community manager Maura Lear. "We just paid the fine. I can assure you that we're ever-conscious of water restrictions here at Compton Park."

Tampa Palms still expects residents to keep their lawns attractive. Lear reminds residents that they can still mow, weed and hand-water new plantings. She sends warning letters to those who repeatedly neglect their lawns.

"I just have a handful of people who absolutely need to resod but I can't compel them to put in new sod because they would have to water too much," she said.

As the drought stretches into its third year, the situation in Tampa Palms underscores the daily quandary facing homeowners throughout these suburbs. Despite a barrage of public service announcements, businesses and homeowners violate watering rules every day. An informal sampling of 34 citations turned up streets in Arbor Greene and Hunter's Green, Lake Magdalene and North Lakes.

Those cited included the Bank of America at 5636 Gunn Highway, Perkins Restaurant at 12650 N Dale Mabry Highway and U.S. Homes and Lennar Homes in Heritage Harbor.

Lakeside Learning Center at 16510 N Florida Ave. and First United Methodist Church of Lutz also were cited.

Such transgressions are the outgrowth of a culture that worships the lush green lawn, even when maintaining it runs counter to Florida's ecology. Water use spikes in dry months, when people should conserve. Work crews water medians. People even water after it rains.

"I just think we have a such a love affair going with our yards," lamented City Consumer Affairs Manager India Williams.

Others blame regulations that are ever more confusing, and reflect poor coordination between the city and county. Last month, an effort to coordinate rules in areas of the unincorporated county that use city water broke down when the County Commission, led by Commissioner Ronda Storms, approved different conditions for the watering of new turf.

"The people out there are trying and they're confused and we understand they're confused," county Water Department spokesman John Fischer said. "We're trying to make it less confusing."

Ignorance and mistakes

The impact of this year's approximately 4,650 citations, which residents can pay or challenge in court, is not easy to gauge. The recipients were largely reluctant to talk to the Times. Those who did talk were alternately apologetic and defensive.

"We did not know we weren't supposed to be watering on that day," Richard Spicer, manager of the Perkins restaurant, cited on March 20 for running a front lawn sprinkler on a restricted day. "But we have since corrected the problem."

Maretta and Robert Day of Lutz received a citation April 4, also for watering on a restricted day. Mrs. Day said the violation was an honest mistake, that her husband ran his lawnmower over the sprinkler, causing it to jam and go off accidentally.

Water court judges don't make allowances for such accidents. The Days agreed to pay the $105 fine rather than fight it in court.

"I'm sure they hear that kind of complaint all the time," Mrs. Day said. "Yes, it was an error. Shame on us that it happened. There's no way to prove it, so we are going to pay it."

Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon manager Chad Purdy also believes authorities were at fault after the restaurant, at 11911 North Dale Mabry Highway, was fined $75 on Feb. 27. A broken water head at the restaurant had flooded the parking lot and filled a ditch with drinkable water.

"What's funny is, it was the city's valve that needed to be turned off," he said. "We couldn't turn ours off. All the city had to do was turn theirs off."

Mark Urso of Arbor Greene said he never had a chance to correct his broken sprinkler in time. Cited three times, he said that by the time the first ticket arrived by certified mail, he already had been cited again.

"If the goal of this whole thing is to reduce the use of water, then they could have put a warning on your door," he said. "I would have fixed it there and now."

Looking the other way

As homeowners try to stay within the law, homeowner associations try to avoid being part of the problem.

The Crystal Lakes Manors Association in Lutz recently invited the Hillsborough Cooperative Extension Service to a presentation on "water-wise landscaping," hoping to generate interest in drought-resistant Florida native plants.

And, though the deed restrictions still are legally binding, a climate has arisen of looking the other way.

"What we're trying to do is take the homeowner deed restrictions and temper it with some common sense," said Oscar Westerfield, president of the Crystal Lakes association.

Westerfield says that some residents have not taken full advantage of their weekly watering day. Rather than making adjustments when the county cut legal watering to one day a week from two, he said, "they turned off that second day. They did not increase the watering time per zone."

Other drought-weakened lawns have fallen prey to insects. Now brown and dead, they must be resodded. But instead of demanding immediate action, Westerfield said the board has sent letters to 15 owners of such lawns instructing them to contact the board about their plans.

"What we've done lately is let it slide a little bit until the rains come," he said.

Similarly, in Plantation of Carrollwood, yards are required only to be mowed, trimmed and edged. "Nobody is going to put a lawn in now," said community manager Tom Jones. "That would be a waste of money. We are waiting for the rainy season."

City and county officials say that they, too, are trying to be reasonable. An all-out ban on landscape irrigation would be a political minefield, they say.

"I don't think we're anywhere near that point," said B.J. Jarvis, records and data manager for the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Current restrictions are "very effective at saving water. Nobody's landscaping is going to flourish and thrive at one-day, but it will survive."

- Times staffers Bill Coats, Tim Grant, Michael Sandler and Susan Thurston contributed to this report. Josh Zimmer can be reached at (813) 226-3474.

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