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County struggles to close trash case
By ROBERT FARLEY
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 31, 2000
OZONA -- Every county code enforcement office has cases that linger, disputes in which the case files grow by the inch.
In Pinellas County, one case stands out for Assistant County Attorney Jewel White Cole:the county's code enforcement case against John Schestag of Ozona.
Now more than 4 inches thick, the file on Schestag began in 1997 after one of his neighbors complained about the old boats and cars accumulating on Schestag's property at 279 Orange St. The county investigated and issued 15 citations against Schestag: 13 for inoperable vehicles, one for excessive trash and one for excessive outside storage. Since then, Schestag has been briefly jailed. He has had nearly $1,000 in bond money revoked to cover his fines. He has been sued by the county.
But the items remain, frustrating neighbors and county officials alike. Schestag would not comment for this story, but he has said that he is merely continuing a commercial use that has existed for decades on his property.
The court documents that Schestag writes on his own behalf accuse county officials, including Cole, of conspiracy, corruption and lies.
"It's been interesting," said Cole, who denies Schestag's accusations.
The case was initiated by Schestag's neighbor, Harold Hatcher, whose two-story pool home and well-manicured lawn abut Schestag's property.
Hatcher, an equipment technician who moved to Ozona in 1992, said he began to notice a few old boats and cars on the property in 1997, "but nothing like now." Currently, there are dozens of old boats and cars, as well as piles of tires, auto parts, trailers, tools -- even a yellow submarine.
Aside from being an eyesore, Hatcher said, the tires are a health hazard. Water pools in the tires and boats, he said, allowing mosquitoes to breed.
"If I wanted to sell," Hatcher said, "I couldn't get what the market value should be. Would you want to buy the house with that next door?"
Schestag maintains in court pleadings that although his property is zoned residential, his auto and boat restoration efforts should be a permitted, grandfathered use.
He supplied affidavits from three longtime residents who attest that in 1962 Schestag purchased the property from the J.D. Christmas family, and that the family had used the land for a boat and marine engine and equipment business for the local fishing industry, as well as an auto repair and body painting business called Ozona Paint and Body. They add that Schestag has continued to repair boats and cars on the property ever since.
One of the letters was supplied by Charlie and Winona Jones of the Palm Harbor and Ozona Historical Society.
Charlie Jones additionally noted that one of the buildings on Schestag's property once served as the area's first fire department.
Schestag also provided documentation that in 1994 he obtained an occupational license from the county to use the property as a "Dealer of Tangible Products." He does not have an occupational license now, but the county dropped the practice of requiring all businesses to have such licenses five years ago. Now, only adult-use businesses, bingo halls and charities that solicit donations in Pinellas must carry a county-issued license.
But the county's three-member non-conforming use committee, of which Cole is a member, found the use was not grandfathered.
Cole said several neighbors had claimed the property wasn't being used commercially as recently as five years ago.
Besides, Cole said, even if it once was used as an auto repair business, that is not its use now. Now, she said, it is simply being used for auto and boat storage and as a junkyard.
Not surprisingly, Schestag contested the code enforcement citations. But a trial on the issue bogged down with delays.
Cole said a pattern emerged: Schestag would get extension after extension because of health problems and treatment for cancer.
Although Schestag, who is representing himself in the case, failed to appear for several pretrial hearings, judges did not order warrants, Cole said. Ultimately, however, a warrant was issued for his arrest. Because the fines for the 15 citations added up to more than $500, the sheriff's office went out in December and executed the warrant. In order to be freed, Schestag had to post a bond equal to the total amount of his code enforcement fines. That was $960, or $64 for each of the 15 citations.
A new court date was set for March, this time for a bench trial, at Cole's request. When Schestag didn't show, his $960 bond was revoked.
In a court filing, Schestag claims he was never notified of the hearing.
While the remittance of bond brought final disposition to the case, Cole said, it did nothing to force Schestag to clean his property.
"The public got no resolution to the problem," Cole said. "Quite to the contrary, it's gotten worse. It's a mess."
So last month Cole filed a suit on behalf of the county against Schestag, seeking to force him to clear his property of the boats, cars, parts and other materials.
In a letter sent to a Pinellas County judge, Schestag contends Cole knew he was being evaluated for new clinical trials for recurring cancer and took the opportunity to suggest he intentionally missed a court date when she knew he was out of state.
He also blames the case on the complaint of a single neighbor, Hatcher.
But Hatcher isn't the only neighbor complaining.
Barry Berger, who lives just down the street, said the boats are an eyesore to the community.
"It's kind of an interesting collection of old memorabilia-type garbage," Berger said. "I have never seen the likes of it."
Meanwhile, Schestag has moved across the street to a home owned by Arthur Gross. Schestag had cared for Gross until Gross died last August.
Now, Cole said, that property is all "junked up" too.
Cole said she hopes the lawsuit will end the whole matter.
"I have never seen one take this long to resolve before," Cole said. "I have been baffled from the start how this has dragged on so long. . . . Someone's got to put a stop to it."
- Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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