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Civil Matters

From one big house to another


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 19, 1999

Back on Jan. 22, Mike Tyson, former heavyweight boxing champion and convicted rapist, took a home-buying tour of Avila, the North Tampa subdivision that likes to think of itself as the ritziest enclave around.

This made for a brief flurry of fairly predictable gossip heavily laced with lame wisecracks and righteous grandstanding. One columnist for this paper referred to him as an animal who should be caged. A Tampa Tribune writer had this to say: "Tampa is a friendly place, but it's hard to embrace somebody when you're covering your ears."

Quite apart from the sick paradox of journalists, once the champions of the downtrodden, nominating themselves as unpaid gatekeepers for a few hundred rich people, this kind commentary overlooks the simple truth that none of Tyson's transgressions disqualify him for residency in Avila or anywhere else.

Indeed, the home Tyson walked through with his entourage was none other than Paul Bilzerian's 37,000-square-foot manse. Bilzerian, the man who defined the term corporate raider in the 1980s, was building the home when he was convicted of stock fraud in 1989. And it was to that home that he returned having served 13 months of a four-year prison sentence.

Prison is prison, and both the seller and the prospective buyer have been inside.

(Perhaps it is only coincidence, but Tyson's current home in Farmington, Conn., a 61-room, 56,000-sqaure-foot monster, was purchased from Benjamin Sisti, who was convicted of real estate fraud and sent to prison. This says volumes about the way money pools in a capitalist society, but again there are no laws that say bad people can't live in good homes.)

Betty Kennedy, one of Tampa's most prominent real estate brokers, estimates she has sold 25 homes in Avila over the years. She is not handling the sale of Bilzerian's home, but she knows something about the mind-set of the average Avila resident.

"As long as he was not obnoxious and drove through the streets fast and ignored the (Homeowner's Association) rules by having 25 cars parked in his driveway, people wouldn't mind," Kennedy said. "They have enough money that (they) wouldn't allow it to bother them."

Precisely. Money enforces compliance and in Avila, as with so many other "gated communities," compliance is maintained with deed restrictions so voluminous that residents could wallpaper their living rooms with them.

Nobody in a community with such a concentration of million-dollar homes much cares whether his neighbor is a football coach who wins or one who loses. The real question is: Does the condition of his yard do anything to diminish the social standing you have achieved by moving to a walled-in world where everyone agrees lawn quality matters?

It is not permissible, for example, to change the oil of one's car in the driveway.

"If you want to change it in your garage," Kennedy said, "that's up to you."

In fact, you can't park your car in your driveway.

No clotheslines. No riding motorcycles or mopeds along Avila's privately owned streets.

You can walk your pet on a leash, but "parcel owners are responsible for making certain that their pets do not create any obnoxious or bothersome noise or odor," according to restrictions that accompanied the sale of one of the Villa homes back in 1981, "and that the animal's bodily functions are performed solely within the walls of the courtyard."

Walking is permitted in Avila. Few people do it. That may be because there are no sidewalks.

Avila's developer, J. Robert Sierra, felt it necessary in 1979 to require that "no windows shall be covered with aluminum foil or other materials not designed for such purpose." That dictum has been abided scrupulously. A recent tour of Avila's vast interior revealed no homes with foil windows.

For the time being, we only guess whether Tyson would have endured the rigors of Avila's fussiness. Only days after his visit to Avila, a judge in Maryland sent Tyson to prison for a year for attacking two motorists in a fender bender. When he gets out, he'll no doubt be looking for a place to live. Who knows? Bilzerian's mansion may still be on the market.

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

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