The Sod Scofflaw is a tale for our times

Usually stories about homeowners fighting deed restrictions make me crazy.

Why? Because they generally go like this: Homeowner moves into A Deed Restricted Community called something like Heather Oaks or Meadow Glen or Heather Glen Meadows, though you may not find any heather, oaks, meadows or glens there. Sometimes "A Deed Restricted Community" is even on the entrance sign, so you know this is a place with firm rules for keeping things nice — if hedges trimmed precise as boot camp haircuts and houses of varying shades of beige are not clue enough.

(To be fair, if you have known a neighborhood where the most popular method of getting rid of an old mattress was to leave it on the curb indefinitely, you may see merit in A Deed Restricted Community.)

So our Homeowner, who by the way was not forced at gunpoint to move into A Deed Restricted Community, paints his house an outrageous shade of not-beige, or parks a forbidden motor home, or puts up a mailbox shaped like a large-mouth bass.

And he is shocked — shocked! — to find he is in violation.

But what happened to a Pasco County retiree in a deed-restricted neighborhood called Beacon Woods last week is something else indeed, both cautionary tale and sign of our times.

The grass at the home of Joseph Prudente, 66, went south after his sprinklers broke. Beacon Woods rules require a tidy lawn. Prudente, who lives with his wife on a pension, says his mortgage went up, his car was repossessed and his daughter and grandkids moved in. Hanging onto the house, not the lawn, was his priority.

Months passed, and more months. Last Friday, lawn still unsodded, Prudente went to jail.

There is plenty of blame to go around. That Prudente did not heed letters from the homeowners association and, ultimately, a judge's order, rarely your best choice. While it is easy to make the homeowners association and judge the big villains of the story, it is also not entirely fair.

The good people of Beacon Woods pay homeowner fees and have a right to neighbors who follow the rules — pretty much the point of A Deed Restricted Community.

But you really wish someone had seen the forest for the trees here, had realized a man who apparently can't afford to keep up his lawn is not exactly Public Enemy No. 1. You wish there had been more focus on solutions.

Not that there wasn't sympathy out there for what happened to Prudente — not to mention outrage. His troubles struck a chord, maybe particularly with those similarly struggling. As he sat in jail, strangers who heard about him donated sod, loaned equipment, mulched, fixed and planted. A county commissioner got his hands dirty. Prudente came home to Extreme Makeover, Sod Edition, a show of solidarity and a good ending — though less so for the civic association and judge who got blasted with bad wishes.

The grandfather who went to jail because of his lawn is a new variation on tales of our sagging economy, a story of hard and questionable choices, of a process that seemed without empathy and then people with buckets of it to spare.

It's where we are, and maybe what's next. It's how we will handle it as neighbors and citizens. And maybe it's coming soon to a yard near you.

The Sod Scofflaw is a tale for our times 10/14/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 16, 2008 5:14pm]

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