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Neighbors petition for rules that count

If the effort succeeds, city inspectors will enforce new neighborhood rules in Island Estates.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 2000

CLEARWATER -- The metal plaque at the entrance to Island Estates says: DEED RESTRICTED.

The words may conjure images of zealous neighborhood associations dictating shades of house paint or, as happened in Tampa, ordering the removal of a treehouse beloved by a child with cancer.

But in the deed-restricted neighborhood of Island Estates, the civic association has never had the power to enforce the rules. Disputes have erupted and neighbors have sued neighbors to try to make the restrictions stick. But they have failed.

Now residents are taking to the streets in a petition drive to have the city impose new, specialized rules that would apply only to people living in Island Estates.

The rules -- called an "overlay district" -- would cover issues that the community's deed restrictions were supposed to regulate.

If the petition drive is successful, for the first time in Clearwater, city inspectors would become responsible for enforcing such things as ensuring that vehicles could not be parked anywhere except on paved driveways in Island Estates.

Also, Island Estates homes could not be rented for less than three months. Fences on the waterfront could not be higher than 4 feet. Damaged seawalls would need to be repaired within 60 days. Large lots could not be combined and redeveloped as rows of small houses, according to the proposed rules.

"To be honest, we don't think any of these things are onerous to people living in what is called a "deed restricted' community," said neighborhood association president Dan Molino.

The City Commission decided to give neighborhoods the option of creating their own regulations last year. Other neighborhoods may try the same thing if the effort in Island Estates succeeds.

Currently, the use of deed restrictions in Island Estates is muddled. That has led residents such as Roylee Miller, who moved here in 1967, to sue neighbors to try to force them to follow the current restrictions. The community's developers wrote the rules to guarantee that the neighborhood would retain a uniform, well-kept appearance over time.

Last year, Miller sued a neighbor to object to the placement of a pool filter, pumps and heaters, constructed above ground at the edge of his property. That violated his Palm Island subdivision's deed rules, Miller alleged.

"One of the reasons (I bought property here) was because of the water, and then the deed restrictions, to keep the property up," Miller said. "Some of the newer residents haven't been as conscientious."

His neighbor, Janet Whitehorn, contended that the deed restrictions in dispute no longer applied to her. She won in court.

Such restrictions run out after 30 years, unless neighbors file special public notices to ensure that they continue under state law. In Whitehorn's case, a judge found that hadn't happened and the restrictions on her property were no longer enforceable.

Also, her attorney argued that since other people had broken the rules in the neighborhood -- and not been sued -- it was unfair to require Whitehorn to follow the old restrictions.

"The irony of it is everybody thinks we have deed restrictions and they're always enforceable," said Whitehorn's attorney, David Smitherman, "when really they're not."

The Island Estates civic association is now working to get 60 percent of its homeowners (about 410 people) to sign petitions in favor of the new rules. So far, about 202 positive responses and 16 negative votes have been collected.

Association members are now knocking on doors to urge 352 people who haven't responded to give their support.

If the needed petitions are collected, the City Commission would appoint a seven-person neighborhood committee to finalize the new Island Estates community rules. There would be six hearings over four months on the issue, including a City Commission vote on the rules, before the rules could take effect.

Some residents are opposed to more government intrusion on their property rights.

"These things are going to be very contentious as they move forward through the process," City Commissioner Bob Clark predicted. Clark, who lives in a condominium on Island Estates, questions if the city really needs to create special rules for his area.

"We are plowing new ground," Clark said.

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