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Complex's water bill swells

Pinellas cannot turn off the taps because of fire concerns, so commissioners agree to sue the Largo complex's owners.

By EDIE GROSS

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 14, 2000


While homeowners across Pinellas County are chafing under drought-driven water restrictions, a near-empty apartment complex in Largo is using water with abandon and not paying for it, county officials charge.

Ashley Crossings Apartment Homes on Rosery Road has used nearly 1.3-million gallons of water and run up $38,779 in unpaid water bills since the end of October, the county's Utilities Department claims.

Normally, the county would just shut off the property's water supply until it paid its bills. But the pipe that supplies water for household uses like sinks and irrigation is the same one that supplies water for fire protection at the complex.

The Utilities Department does not want to risk turning off the fire protection supply because of the long-running drought.

"Given the fact that we're in one of the worst droughts in history, I'm very, very reluctant to turn off their fire protection," said assistant county attorney Donald Crowell, who nonetheless expressed frustration at Ashley Crossings' mounting bills.

"The problem I have is . . . (the complex) is using a limited resource we're trying to conserve and not even paying for it, when we have paying customers who are being cited for using it."

Crowell asked county commissioners Tuesday to sue the complex's owners, Mason-Phillips Properties of Florida IV Inc. of Jacksonville Beach, something commissioners unanimously agreed to do.

Crowell said he will ask a judge to ban the complex from using water for anything but fire protection until its bills are paid.

"If that water meter so much as moves, I'll be back in there asking the court for an order to show cause," he said.

Perhaps the oddest part about the case is no one really seems to know what the water has been used for. The complex is under renovation and only has five families living in it.

County officials theorize that contractors have used the water to pressure-wash the structures and fill a swimming pool. The county has not had any luck reaching anyone at Mason-Phillips.

An employee at the Ashley Crossings office, 401 Rosery Road, referred questions to Douglas Co. of Orlando, which is renovating the 279-apartment complex. Randy Shelly, vice president of Douglas Co., said the water bills were Mason-Phillips' responsibility.

State records list Charles Hartman as the registered agent and Vanessa Hartman as the president of Mason-Phillips. Neither returned calls Tuesday. County records indicate that Ashley Crossings used nearly 1.4-million gallons of water between Aug. 29 and Oct. 29. The company finally paid for all but about $5,100 of that bill in February.

But between Oct. 29 and April 29, another 1.3-million gallons of water was used at the site, adding another $33,679 to the tally. The grand total owed: $38,779.27.

Contractors were not working at the site Tuesday. Shelly, of Douglas Co., said he could not comment on the progress of the complex.

Pinellas County Utilities has come down hard on homeowners, issuing warnings and fines to those who violate the once-a-week watering restrictions. Crowell said he intends to hold Ashley Crossings responsible for its water use.

"We've written literally thousands of notices of violations, thousands of citations last month alone," Crowell said.

"It irks me that we're spending time, manpower and money to enforce irrigation violations when someone is so blatantly blowing off their bills."

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