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Assisted living facility in Largo caught between city, state building codes

LARGO — The Catch-22 for Anastasios Mihos came in the form of a grease trap.

After he won a hard-fought development agreement with Largo officials last January, Mihos has been remodeling a 33-bed assisted living facility he purchased so it could reopen.

But in August, as his architect, Ron Ginn, was going over the kitchen, there was an issue. The grease trap, capable of handling 20 gallons of runoff per minute, wasn't up to state building code.

So he replaced it as soon as possible with a new unit capable of handling more than twice the load the assisted living facility had typically used in the past.

For a facility like the one Mihos owns, the new 50-gallon trap was sufficient, according to Florida building regulations.

But not in Largo.

According to city ordinance, a 750-gallon unit is the smallest Mihos could install — 15 times the state minimum, and thousands of dollars in extra cost.

This was what brought Mihos to City Hall on Tuesday night, with state Rep. Jim Frishe arguing on his behalf, to appeal the city's decision to deny him a permit and its refusal to even inspect the building's grease trap until he pulled out the unit already in place and put in a larger one.

"They wouldn't even talk to us. This particular grease trap cost me $4,800," Mihos said. "Five months ago … they said 750 or nothing."

Frishe, who came to represent Mihos after a mutual friend introduced them, was paid at the beginning of his intervention last year as a consultant. This time, he offered his work pro bono.

"I understand his trauma. He's in a bind," Frishe said.

For two hours, Frishe argued on his client's behalf, at first attempting to show that the city's code was adopted incorrectly, and thus moot.

However, the city attorney, citing lack of court precedent, disagreed with that argument.

So Frishe offered more facts.

"You can't force more than 42 gallons per minute through that plumbing," he said, citing a plumber's report. "The pipes are clean, and it used to have a 20-gallon grease interceptor … We believe a 50 gallon would be more than sufficient."

Even Irvin Kety, the city's environmental services director, said that the rule in this case was probably too strict.

"Quite frankly, 15 times was unreasonable," he said.

But his hands were tied.

"We don't have a lot of wiggle room in terms of variance," he said, considering the city code he is required to follow.

Despite clashing with Frishe's assertiveness at the lectern, Mayor Patricia Gerard empathized with Mihos.

"It's not a Checkers. They are not frying food," she said.

But Commissioner Curtis Holmes, though he supported granting the appeal, gave a warning.

"We might open up Pandora's box if we approve this," he said, looking to the other businesses that would clamor for similar exceptions.

After all, Largo's strict rule about grease traps in businesses with kitchens isn't an arbitrary one. Its utility, City Manager Norton "Mac" Craig said during the appeal proceeding, had already proven itself.

"Grease in a city's sewer system is a terrible thing," Craig said. "When I came to work in 2002, it was a major problem. Sewage would back up into bathrooms and run up onto the floor."

But in recent years, after the code was adopted, the problem of grease clogs has largely faded.

"A grease spill is a rare occasion now. The sewer department has done a magnificent job to get us to where we are now," Craig said.

Commissioners voted 7-0 to continue the hearing Jan. 4 — and ordered the city staff to inspect Mihos' grease trap in the meantime.

And the other result: Commissioners reached a consensus that the grease trap rule needed to change.

"Let's go ahead and rewrite the ordinance," Holmes said.

"It is probably true that we need to make that ordinance more flexible," Commissioner Woody Brown said.

Assisted living facility in Largo caught between city, state building codes 12/18/10 [Last modified: Saturday, December 18, 2010 3:30am]
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