As temperatures rise, backyard swimming pools are increasingly a focal point for homeowners — and for local code enforcement officers.
As foreclosures continue to mount, code officers face a deluge of complaints about pools that have been abandoned. Many are left unsecured and, without proper chemical treatment, bacteria and algae run rampant.
In the past six months, both Hillsborough County and the city of Tampa have passed ordinances to remedy the situation. So far, the rules have had a slight impact but have yet to significantly decrease the workload.
With summer approaching, solutions are urgent, said Jonathan Williams, a code enforcement officer for the county. "The pools become stagnant a lot quicker, so there is potential to harbor mosquitoes."
"It's almost a tragedy waiting to happen," said James Blinck, chief operations manager for Hillsborough's code enforcement department. "There are many young children in these neighborhoods. Unsecured pools are probably our No. 1 priority."
The county recently recorded 392 code violations for problematic pools. Most are at foreclosed homes, according to data provided by code enforcement.
Of Tampa's 1,600 foreclosed properties, about 10 percent have problem pools, said Jake Slater, director of Tampa's code enforcement.
In the northwest portion of unincorporated Hillsborough, Town 'N Country tops the list of dirty pools, Williams said. Farther south, neighborhoods such as Bloomingdale and FishHawk Ranch are problem areas.
"I could take you to pretty much any neighborhood where there's a case with either a dirty or unsecured pool," he said.
Every day, Williams heads out just after dawn to inspect properties that have been reported. On this day, a waterfront home in the Bayport neighborhood of Town 'N Country is his first stop.
The vacant upscale two-story white Mediterranean home has a large screened-in back porch and boat dock. The pool, though, is brown as mud.
Neighbors have repeatedly reported the problem to code enforcement.
Foreclosure doesn't discriminate, says Williams, adding that homes with abandoned pools range from expensive to modest. When he began as a code enforcement officer seven years ago, foreclosures were rare. But in the past two years, he said, "it's become an overburdened issue."
Juli Milas, president of the Bay Crest Park Civic Association, has seen the change firsthand. When she moved here 40 years ago, homeowners thrived financially. These days, foreclosed properties are not uncommon on her street and throughout the neighborhood. Several have pools.
"It disturbs all of us," Milas said. "No one wants to have their property degraded by having a home that is not kept up next door."
A foul odor emits from the rear of a brown and tan home at the corner of Baycrest Drive, only a few blocks from Milas' home. The pool's enclosure has a missing screen, and the water looks like a dirty pond.
It's homes like these that raise a red flag for Williams, because of the easy accessibility to the pool from the sidewalk.
"We consider this to be a life safety issue," he said. "God forbid a toddler walks in and drowns."
The home has a bright orange code enforcement violation sticker on the front, indicating that the pool has been a problem for at least six months.
Once a home is cited for having a problem pool in Tampa or in the county, code enforcement typically gives owners 15 days to comply. After that, if nothing happens, the owners can be referred to the code enforcement board for a hearing. Fines can reach up to $1,000 a day.
Property owners who have walked away from foreclosed homes often don't care enough to rectify the situation. For the county, it's not as simple as draining the pool, Williams said. Officers can't trespass on the property.
Figuring out exactly who owns the home can be a task itself. Hillsborough County and Tampa approved ordinances that require mortgage lenders to register the properties with government agencies and to pay a fee when foreclosure proceedings begin. The lenders must also secure and maintain the properties, including mosquito abatement and pool maintenance.
Tampa's ordinance passed in December; the county's, a month earlier.
"We've seen now that many mortgage companies have posted who the contact is for maintaining the property," said Dexter Barge, director of the county's code department. "Just by having an ordinance in place, it has created more of a sense of urgency."
Nicole Hutcheson can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.