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Code enforcers referee pair's feud

Almost weekly officials are called to intervene in a bitter dispute between warring neighbors.


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 12, 2000

Marsh Owl Avenue might look like an ordinary lime rock road, but these days it doubles as a wrestling ring.

In one corner stands Douglas Mann, armed with a video camera and long list of grievances against his neighbor. If you ask to see his secret weapon -- footage of the "illegal" dumping, human feces and wads of used toilet paper he has documented on the property down the street -- he'll be happy to show you.

In the other corner is Victor Benson, carrying building permits and a police report that tells how Mann once chopped down a clump of trees near his driveway and then threatened him with a machete. At the time, Benson decided not to press charges, "but I should have shot him while I could," Benson now reflects.

The area around these men was once a country haven north of the traffic and noise of Spring Hill. For nine years, Mann's home, with its immaculate lawn and sculpted shrubbery, was the only residence on Marsh Owl Avenue. Now, as Benson builds his "dream house" down the street, the serenity has been shattered. The men blame each other.

"I never had problems before he came," grumbled Mann, 47, who has put his house up for sale.

"I don't know why he won't leave me alone," lamented Benson, 46. "I came here for the quiet. I can't wait until he moves."

Officials say the two men are an example of a growing trend in Hernando County, as more people move into areas occupied by residents who like their seclusion and do not welcome newcomers and as fewer people take the time to get to know their neighbors.

"We call it job security," said code enforcement officer Mark Caskie. "Half of what we go out to is because people don't talk to their neighbors. Rather than walk next door, they call us or the Sheriff's Office."

In the past three years, the increase in complaints has risen substantially, records show. In 1997, the Code Enforcement Department received 11,400 requests for service. By 1999, the number jumped to 15,516. If the level of complaints for this year continues at the rate it has since January, the figures for 2000 will hover around 16,500.

Out of all these cases, code enforcement officers say a surprising number of them are smackdowns like the one that has developed off Marsh Owl Avenue.

The feud began two years ago, when Benson dumped a mobile home that he planned to use for scrap metal at the end of the road. Mann complained to county officials, but it took six months and a ticket to get Benson to remove the eyesore, records show.

Then, when Benson started building his house, he cut a new entrance through some trees so he could access his home from the east side of his property off Marsh Owl Avenue. Previously, the only access was from Richmond Street, which lies on the west side of the land. Mann resented Benson's using "his" road; Benson resented the resentment.

Things went downhill from there. The worst incident came in February, when Benson said Mann had threatened to "slice" him with a machete. Benson had just stopped by the property to look it over when he saw Mann cutting down trees and laying them across the newly cleared entrance. When he confronted Mann, Benson says, his neighbor raised the weapon and said he would kill Benson and his wife. Mann, who was found guilty of battery after he grabbed a driver in a 1992 road rage incident and threatened to hit him, does not deny the machete incident. But he says he was only defending himself after Benson pulled a gun on him. Deputies came out to investigate, but neither side pursued charges.

Police, county code enforcement officers and even a special mediator have been out since that incident to try to settle the dispute. But nothing seems to work.

Time after time, Mann continues to report Benson for various alleged offenses: improper building permits, illegal vehicle tags, driving over his lawn and, most recently, defecating in the woods. Standing on his property, where not a blade of grass is out of place, he calls Benson a "junk man" and complains that his new neighbor flies up and down the rock road, hurling insults and sending clouds of dust onto his land.

"He does it on purpose," Mann said. "He's trying to dust me out."

Such statements are enough to make Benson throw up his hands in frustration. His 5 acres are cluttered as one might imagine a building site would be, but his specially constructed garage, which looks like a miniature hangar and spans 41 feet by 70 feet, is 100 percent county approved and tidy inside.

Benson says Mann is trying to bait him into a fight. He has found sharpened nails on the road that he thinks Mann put there to ruin his tires.

"He isn't worth it," Benson reminds himself, trying to keep his temper in check.

So far, of all the accusations Mann has leveled against Benson, only the one about the old mobile home has held up. Benson moved it and paid a county fine, records show. He does not know what more he can do.

"I don't know why he's doing this," Benson said. "I've never even met the guy. I figured this would stop, but it hasn't. . . . But he's not getting rid of me, I don't care what he does."

Nor, it seems, will Benson get rid of Mann any time soon. Mann's home has been on the market for months, without a nibble of interest. He has dropped his asking price from $127,000 to $119,000 but has yet to receive a call. He won't say where he's moving. "That's my business," he said.

Although Mann said he's eager to leave, he gets a glint in his eye when he talks about how he has written to state lawmakers about his neighbor. He also happily explains he bought a new video camera so he can document Benson's future offenses.

Both men say they will wait the other out. But in the meantime, the waiting is straining code enforcement officers, who are called out to the road virtually every week.

"Mr. Mann has neighbors moving into his little piece of God's country . . . so I spend more time out there than I wish I did," said Caskie, the code enforcement officer. "Once the (Suncoast) Parkway opens up, I think the problem will grow even more. There's people out there who enjoy being out in the wilderness, and as the lime rock roads fill up, they won't be happy."

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