Code violations in Largo can be costly

LARGO — The car was to be a Christmas gift for Christine Walsh's son. It sat on her driveway in East Largo for two weeks in December, awaiting the big day.

But the little Toyota didn't have its tags yet, and according to the city's code of ordinances, that was a violation.

Fast forward three months to this past Thursday.

Walsh stood before the city's code enforcement board pleading her case. She'd been stuck with a $4,500 fine by the city — $300 for each day the car sat on the driveway without its tags.

Because she had similarly violated city codes by keeping an unregistered boat trailer in her yard several years earlier, the fines kicked in right after a city code inspector wrote the citation for the unregistered vehicle.

"Like I said, when I got the notice, I said we'd get it done," Walsh told the board.

Walsh said she didn't know she would incur a fine for each day until she moved the car into a garage.

About a half-dozen other city residents were at the hearing, each awaiting their own turn to try to argue down fines that had stacked up faster than they expected or even realized they could.

Each year, of the roughly 3,000 code citations city enforcement officers write — usually just warnings to fix the problems within a set period of time — 125 or so turn delinquent, and their cases turn up before the board.

For residents, such situations can be hard. But city officials call it necessary.

While it might seem harsh to slap homeowners with thousands of dollars in fines for something as simple as a car without tags on private property, or an overgrown lawn, or a nuisance beehive, city officials say it's needed to keep Largo residents from flouting the codes designed to cut down on unkempt properties.

"Very, very few cases actually make it to the code enforcement board. The way many cases work out, we'll contact the resident, let them know what the code requires, and give them a reasonable time to do it," said Carol Stricklin, the city's community development director.

But sometimes, making people pay to comply is the only way.

"People don't take it seriously sometimes until they come before code board," Stricklin said.

Other cases argued on Thursday included a $30,500 fine for a troublesome beehive that wasn't moved, and objects in a yard that one resident considered treasures fit to sell at a flea market, but the city deemed trash.

Some cases can go on for years, with fines often stacking into six figures.

Between January 2008 and January of this year, one Largo home incurred a $250 fine each day for 732 days, for a grand total of $183,000.

Those cases, Stricklin said, are rare.

"Sometimes people just won't come into compliance," she said. "Another circumstance we do occasionally see is if the property has been abandoned, or where the owner moves out of state and the owner falls ill."

For a homestead property, the worst step is for the city to place a lien on the home.

And code enforcement board members, the ones who hand down the final say in fines, can be understanding.

Walsh caught a break after presenting her case.

"I think we could bring it down to $100 a day, as long as she doesn't do it again," said board member Barbara Sofarelli.

Walsh said she certainly won't.

Numbers add up

The following properties were fined over violating city codes.

922 Seventh Ave SW: 126 days at $250 per day

Fine Due: $30,500

The problem: Public nuisance — bees

32 Eighth Ave. SE: 27 days at $100 per day

Fine Due: $2,700

The problem: junk in yard

1626/1628 Pine St: 578 days at $150 per day

Fine Due: $86,700

The problem: Roof in violation of building codes

Code violations in Largo can be costly 03/27/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 26, 2010 6:55pm]

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