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Sod patches over lengthy Pasco lawn spat

Joseph Prudente was jailed for contempt of court after he didn’t resod his lawn.

Joseph Prudente was jailed for contempt of court after he didn’t resod his lawn.

BAYONET POINT — Joseph Prudente's homeowners association told him to resod his shabby lawn. He didn't do it. Then a judge told him. He still didn't do it. So the 66-year-old went to jail for a couple of days.

The first article about this ran in Saturday's St. Petersburg Times. Another one ran Monday.

But at least as interesting as the stories themselves was the response they spawned. Neighbors helped make his lawn green again. The media interest was wide. And the outrage? It was unabashed.

The judge's assistant got calls Monday she called "ugly."

Beacon Woods Civic Association president Bob Ryan was expecting feedback. He was even expecting negative feedback. What he was not expecting, he said, were the e-mails "wishing me AIDS and cancer."

This story seemed to throw open a window into the national feelings of hopelessness and anger in these times of economic uncertainty.

"Everyone's having a hard time now," said Andy Law, one of the neighbors who led the resodding effort. "There's a lot worse things going on right now than brown lawns.

"What are we coming to," he asked, "when we're putting our senior citizens in jail for having a brown lawn?"

For Prudente, a retired registered nurse from Long Island, his choice was this: keeping his house or keeping his lawn nice.

He bought his one-story, four-bedroom home in 1998 for $127,500. He and his wife live off Social Security and his pension, and he's three months behind on his mortgage, which recently went up $600 a month, he said. His daughter and her two children recently moved in with them because they were having hard times. More mouths to feed.

"Right now," he said Monday, "my lawn is not my priority."

It's important to note here that Prudente did not go to jail for having a brown lawn. He went to jail because he didn't obey a judge's order.

But all this did start with the grass.

Beacon Woods has more than 2,000 homes and almost 600 condos. About 6,000 people live there. They pay $252 a year in homeowners association fees.

Some of the rules there are as follows: No above-ground pools, no trailers, no boats, no motor homes, no junk cars, no "noxious, noisy or offensive activity." No trampolines or tree houses. No chickens or cows. Also: "All yards and lawns shall be maintained in a neat and attractive condition." Beacon Woods rules say lawns shouldn't have more than 10 percent bare patches.

The association sent its first letter to Prudente almost a year ago. It gave him 30 days to respond.

Nothing.

Another letter gave him another 15 days to respond.

Nothing.

Then the association asked him to come to a mediation session.

Nope.

So the association kicked it to the courts. That was in March.

Circuit Judge W. Lowell Bray signed a court order in May telling him to tend to his lawn.

Nothing.

That order said he had 30 days to do something about his lawn. May turned to June. June turned to July and then to August and then to September.

Bray found Prudente in contempt of court. He gave him another 30 days to resod. But this was his last chance. If he didn't do it this time? Jail.

Time was up on Friday.

Prudente turned himself in at the county jail in Land O'Lakes on Friday morning.

"If the gentleman finds himself in a difficult situation, obviously that's a shame," said Frank Rathbun, a spokesman for the Community Associations Institute, an organization that represents homeowners associations around the country. "But the associations have an obligation to enforce the rules that are in place to protect property values. What issue is bigger than property values today?

"What's more important than maintaining the appearance of a community?"

"The court isn't offended that his lawn is brown," said Paul Milberg, an attorney in Fort Lauderdale who represents the Community Advocacy Network, a group that works for homeowners associations. "The court is offended that it told him to do something and he didn't do it.

"Court orders do need to be enforced," Milberg added. "You want the court to be the bastion where disputes are resolved so that people don't take to the streets."

But public opinion was what it was. The story from Saturday was still the most-commented story on tampabay.com on Monday.

Ryan, the association president, got his first e-mail about it at 3 a.m. Saturday. It came from Boulder, Colo., and it was only the beginning of the vitriol. He said Monday that he had gotten about 75 e-mails. Two of them were in favor of him. The rest were not. They were mean, he said, and they were nasty.

Meanwhile, over at Prudente's house, the resodded lawn looked okay.

Times staff writers Molly Moorhead and Erin Sullivan contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6244.

Sod patches over lengthy Pasco lawn spat 10/13/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 20, 2008 5:34pm]
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