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City of St. Petersburg says Myrtle the turtle's backyard haven is a code violation

ST. PETERSBURG — The man's turtle is called Myrtle.

The red-eared slider follows Ken Conklin around. She comes when he calls. She lets him throw her like a Frisbee into her pond in his back yard and then — v-e-r-y slowly — she comes back for more. His neighbors will tell you that she is like a child to him.

Conklin has no children. His connection with Myrtle reaches beyond most man-turtle relationships.

But now the $25,000 home Conklin has built in his back yard for Myrtle — the pond that now also holds Chickenbutt and Chickenhead and the other turtles — has become the subject of a city permitting fuss.

VIOLATION NOTICE the first letter said.

LEGAL ACTION WARNING LETTER said the next.

Conklin's Taj Ma-Turtle is out of code.

• • •

Come into Ken and Kim Conklin's yard off 62nd Avenue S. Step past the Confederate Jasmine and the Pandora vines up onto a massive deck that skirts Myrtle's pond.

Logs jut out of the water amid swamp ferns and peace lilies. Overhead, wood beams criss-cross the sky, beams that he eventually hopes to cover with shade cloth. The water in the pond is pumped through a system of filters and barrels to keep it fresh and clean.

Conklin calls it a zen garden.

The City of St. Petersburg can't seem to figure out what it is.

They began bugging him about it in early February. They called it an unapproved room addition.

Conklin howled. No way. It's a pond. It's a deck. Not a room addition.

So they called it an arbor. It would have to be reduced from about 500 square feet to 80 square feet. It would have to be moved away from the edge of his property to comply with "setbacks."

Conklin was trying to figure out how he was going to do that when he talked to another official: now it was being considered a "mechanical structure."

He's not sure what that is. He could face a $500 a day fine if he doesn't comply.

The structure is so unusual that the city has struggled to define it or even determine which department should handle it. But they're sure it requires a permit.

"All we want him to do is get it permitted properly so it meets the setbacks and he can call it whatever he wants to," said Rick Dunn, the city's building official.

Conklin, a 37-year-old IT consultant, says moving the pond away from the property line would be a massive project. He'd have to fill in at least half the pond and probably rebuild his deck. Myrtle and her friends would get a lot more crowded.

He says he went to the city to find out if he needed a permit before he constructed the deck and pond three years ago; they told him his deck, his pond, his shade cloth structure — all seemed to fall under permitting exemptions.

So he began building. He constructed his pond to the edge of his yard, wrapped it around his house. Friends and his vet started giving him abandoned pet turtles. His neighbors on both sides visited his back yard just to hang out. "I don't have a problem with it," says Verlyn Forde-Sims, whose property line touches the edge of the pond.

Today the entire back yard is like a little piece of backwoods Florida.

"I can't move out of the city of St. Petersburg to the mountains the way I'd like to," Conklin says, "so I'm trying to bring it to me and bring a spiritual tranquility back to my life."

• • •

As he walks up to the edge of his pond, eight or nine turtle heads emerge from the water. He's got 22 in all, chicken turtles, red ear sliders, musk turtles.

"Hi guys," he says.

He points out Speedy and Slowpoke. Perfume and Cologne. Monique and Unique.

Tri-Bob. He's got three legs.

They're all rescues, former pets, named by long-gone owners.

All except Myrtle.

As he says her name, she swims to the edge and crawls out.

"What? You want attention?" he coos. She's about a foot long, green and slimy. Her head has a red stripe. She moves over to him, puts a front claw on the big toe of his black boot. He tickles her under her chin.

Conklin bought Myrtle in 1998 when she was the size of a quarter. He'd had some turtles, lizards and a caiman when he was a teen, but Myrtle was his first reptile as an adult.

He raised her inside his house, first in a 10-gallon tank, then a 20-gallon and finally a 30-gallon tank. He allowed her to roam the house. She played with their cats, batting at them when they pawed her inside her tank. She chased their tails. She bonded with Conklin and his wife, Kim.

"It's just like having a connection with a dog or a cat," says Conklin. "Her wild instincts have been removed. Therefore, she's capable of receiving and understanding affection. She trusts me and I trust her."

Giving up what he has created for Myrtle and the other turtles is not an option, he says. He'll try his best to comply with the city because his wife, Kim, doesn't want to be in trouble. But Myrtle and the other turtles come first.

City of St. Petersburg says Myrtle the turtle's backyard haven is a code violation 05/22/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 26, 2009 8:00am]
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