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The biggest homes, egos on the block

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© St. Petersburg Times, published June 20, 2000

I thought for a while that Don Wallace had it in for me. Here was a guy with so little regard for his critics that he had somebody videotape those of us, reporters, neighbors, rubberneckers, who watched three years ago when he tore down a landmark house on Bayshore Boulevard that he had no need of, and less regard for.

I had written about how the baron of his very own RV kingdom, Lazy Days, had elbowed his way through the maze of Tampa's rules on preserving historic houses so he could move a few blocks down Bayshore from the 5,000-square-foot-house that was going to be too small for him and his wife once their baby was born. So they tore down an old yellow place called the Swann House to erect a house twice as big. You know how much room a baby takes up.

A house that grand needs trees on the order of the kind found in national parks, and being a baron, Wallace found them.

This is when I thought he had it in for me: My own home, maid's quarters by the baron's standards, is a few blocks behind his new place. Several times in the last six weeks, I'd get up in the morning to find 18-wheel flatbed trucks directly across our two-lane street, stacked with enormous palms and oaks.

This was at the height of the drought.

The baron was not to be stopped by some natural force like weather. My block was his landscaper's staging area.

Like the rest of Tampa we have a neighborhood association, and I am probably not welcome in it, not only because our azaleas are raggedy but because I once groused loudly here about how they wanted to keep dogs, of all creatures, out of a nearby park.

But they'll make me Gasparilla Queen (middle-aged division) before Don Wallace gets welcomed into the neighborhood. He's as wanted as an invasion of drywood termites.

Maybe this bothers him. Maybe it doesn't. When you have that much money, you become accustomed to having your way.

And he's only doing what too many of the rest of us do, except on a grander scale. He's like the guy who cuts you off on the highway and flips the bird at you and screams silently behind his rolled up window when you honk at him. He doesn't consider himself part of the community. He considers himself entitled.

History repeats itself, and the stupidities of our unraveling culture do, too. Last week, somebody further down Bayshore pulled a move out of the baron's playbook.

A radiologist, Dr. Gary Smith, and his wife Molly, were in a $265,000 house on Knights Avenue when they decided to move five blocks to Chapin Avenue, a street named for a long deceased lady so rich she had her own railway car. The Smiths bought a lot for $189,000 and decided to build a 5,000 square foot house on it -- twice as big as the house they lived in.

Sound familiar?

The only obstacle this time was an ancient oak.

It stands where the house was going to go, and the city of Tampa, in a burst of sense, said the Smiths couldn't tear it down. The struggle went on for months, until last week. Hours after the city council said no again, the Smiths hired a tree man to give the oak the arboreal version of a military buzz cut.

The doctor must be too busy at his practice to want to be invited to the holiday parties, the crime watch meetings, the backyard barbecues. He must not want to be a neighbor, the way neighbors are supposed to be. He is behaving more like a corporation. He hasn't said a word in public. He has spoken only through a lawyer.

Sure neighborhoods change, and sure this was the doctor's tree, on his piece of dirt. But he bought dirt, not a fiefdom. His neighbors are not serfs, any more than Don Wallace is a baron.

In more polite times, we had words for what's happening along the Bayshore, and on Chapin Avenue.

In more polite times, we called it rude.

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