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Balm taqueria tackles code enforcement

BALM

For more than a decade, a small concrete-block building in an overgrown grass lot sat facing County Road 672 as dump trucks, farm haulers and tankers sped by on the busy truck route.

All that changed when Guillermo De La Rosa of Riverview bought the property in 2005.

A former owner told De La Rosa the building had once been a take-out place, serving hamburgers and ice cream to people who worked on farms or passers-by in a rural area largely devoid of food service. County property records show the building dates to 1976.

To De La Rosa, the property offered the perfect spot for a taqueria, or taco stand. Instead of focusing on hamburgers, the business would target migrant farm workers whose tastes ran to authentic Mexican-style food.

A couple of years later, he and his family started painting the building with pictures of palm trees, to match the stand's name of Las Palmas. About three years ago, his wife began preparing meals, including her special handmade tortillas.

"Everything is done by hand, except the tomato sauce for the rice," De La Rosa said.

He said he struggles to keep prices low, but still offers a plate of rice, beans and meat for $5. Drinks cost 50 cents to $1.

In front of the restaurant, he and relatives built gazebos with benches, tables and ceiling fans to allow customers a chance to sit and eat. One by one, the structures went up, until there were five. De La Rosa said he and his son, John, carefully painted them and planted flowers.

"We've had people stop and take pictures of it," he said. "We've got customers from Sarasota. We had a family come in from Georgia."

But neighbors have made three separate complaints in as many years against the business to Hillsborough County Code Enforcement.

In 2008 and '09, a neighbor complained, mostly about trash. County records show the De La Rosas were required to clean the property and keep trash from blowing onto a neighboring lot. They also had to get a sign permit. Records show the business complied, and the cases were closed without going to an enforcement hearing.

In February, a complaint about zoning led to code enforcement citations for not having building permits for the gazebos. Inspectors say De La Rosa also needs a special-use permit for parking commercial trucks and a site development plan for the property.

Bill Langford, Hillsborough's code enforcement supervisor, said the business complies with the site's commercial zoning. He said the business wasn't cited for the current violations on previous inspections because no one complained specifically about zoning.

County officials want De La Rosa to meet with the Planning and Growth Management Department to determine what is needed to operate.

De La Rosa said he feels targeted by certain residents because they see "brown people," Hispanics, operating and patronizing the business.

Exactly who made the complaint against Las Palmas remains uncertain.

Langford said he made a presentation about code enforcement to the Balm Civic Association in January. During the meeting, there were attempts to list various properties in Balm that might have violations, Langford recalled. He suggested that people submit anonymous complaints instead to avoid embarrassing property owners who might be in the audience.

About two weeks later, an anonymous complaint showed up in a drop box at the county's South Shore Regional Service Center in Ruskin. On a list of nine properties was Las Palmas, with the word "zoning" in parentheses.

Marcella O'Steen, the association's president, said the association never voted to make an official code enforcement complaint and declined to comment further.

Langford said all of the sites on the list of nine were inspected. Two had no violations, and all but two of the others, including Las Palmas, have fixed the problems. Most had to do with junk piles or overgrowth.

"Our goal is compliance," Langford said. "We don't have a personal stake in it. … We don't want to be selective."

The case could go to a hearing next year. However, De La Rosa said he would meet with code enforcement officials before it gets that far and seek compliance.

De La Rosa, who hails from San Antonio, Texas, and his wife, Alejandra, from Mexico, are former farm field workers. The husband still recruits field hands and runs a contract crew for some of South Hillsborough's largest growers.

Over the past 11 years, he said, his family built a business of feeding harvesters where they work, taking fresh-cooked food to them via a fleet of trucks. Sometimes workers come to the stand by bus from the fields.

De La Rosa figures the couple provides a valuable service.

"We've both worked in the fields," he said. "If you cook your meal at 5 in the morning and can't eat it till 11 or 12 noon, it gets soggy and cold.

"We know how hard it is."

Susan Green can be reached at hillsnews@sptimes.com.

Balm taqueria tackles code enforcement 12/16/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 16, 2010 3:30am]
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