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Rules sink in as watering fines surge

Don't bother to make excuses. A first offense brings a $25 ticket, and code enforcers are on the prowl at night.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 14, 2001


SPRING HILL -- Code Enforcement Officer Mark Caskie hadn't planned to drive down Niagara Road on Saturday afternoon until an arc of water caught his eye.

He passed George Mead's Woodland Waters home twice in the county-issue white pickup truck, as if to send a message, before pulling into the driveway. Mead padded out to see what the problem was.

You're watering the lawn illegally, Caskie told him.

Mead, who has lived in the house for four years, asked what the rules were. Caskie explained the once-weekly sprinkling regulations, which have been in effect for a year, and then gave Mead a $25 ticket. The county stopped warning people on first violations about two weeks ago.

Mead smiled and pulled out his wallet. After being told to mail in the fine, he told Caskie he was glad to see someone out enforcing the rules.

Caskie and other Code Enforcement officers have had many similar conversations recently.

Since doing away with warnings, the county has fined more than 120 residents for watering their lawns at the wrong time or on the wrong day. That's about as many fines as were issued in the previous 16 months.

Most of the illegal watering has taken place at night, when people think no one is looking. To combat that, Code Enforcement Director Frank McDowell has started sending officers out in the wee hours.

The weekend of May 5 and 6, two officers traversed the county from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. and found 42 violations. They mailed the tickets the next day.

"We're going to continue to do the odd hours," McDowell said. "Hopefully, they'll get the point with the first citation to get their sprinkler recalibrated and to get on one day a week."

If people dislike the tougher enforcement, they have not flooded government phone lines to complain. So far, only one person has urged the County Commission to abandon its watering rules, and one person has called to dispute a ticket.

Instead, hundreds of residents have complained that Code Enforcement should give out more tickets, so all watering scofflaws, including businesses, get the same treatment.

"If they're going to restrict the water, it should be equally done among everyone," said Pamela Lawson of Spring Hill. "I have a well, and I have to follow the rules. I've lost quite a few azaleas."

She and others reported what seemed to be a blatant violation, the daily watering of the medians along Mariner Boulevard.

Code Enforcement Officer Frank McCabe investigated Friday and found that the Seven Hills Homeowners Association had planted grass plugs in more than 50 percent of the questioned sprinkler zones. State water regulations allow daily watering in such situations for 30 days, and then every other day for another 30 days.

"Mariner is highly visible. I wouldn't go out there and run this illegally knowing people would call this in," said Troy Dalbec of Rainmaster, the irrigation company hired by Seven Hills. "I wish for my case, they had never done it. But if the plugs don't live, then they'll charge me for them. It's been the worst nightmare I can imagine."

Lawson accepted the explanation, but said she still will watch for excessive watering. "This is our water. When it's gone, it's gone for everyone. So everyone needs to do their part," she said.

Code Enforcement officers welcome the help. "Actually, we don't have the people to drive around and catch everything, so when people call in, that's just helping us," Caskie said. However, an officer must see the violation to write a ticket.

Once they see an offense, the officers accept very few excuses.

One man said he had not adjusted to daylight savings time yet, and his daytime watering would have been okay if the clocks hadn't been set ahead an hour. That didn't fly.

One woman said she had just laid new curbing and needed to water it. "I told her, 'I don't think it's going to grow, ma'am,' " McCabe said.

Water rules

The county does not allow watering on weekends or between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Residents may water their lawns once a week, and the day depends on their address.

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