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Pinellas County warms up bulldozers for major code violators

Pinellas County is becoming tougher with owners who refuse to keep their property in good repair.

Pinellas officials will tear down three structures and take ownership of a Clearwater home if county commissioners give their okay. The proposals are on the agenda for the commission's meeting at 2 p.m. today in the Pinellas County Courthouse, 315 Court St., Clearwater.

Razing homes and businesses and foreclosing on others because of heavy code liens is something the county has rarely done. But some property owners simply refuse to do repairs, no matter how many chances they get, assistant county administrator Maureen Freaney said.

"We work with people over and over and over," Freaney said. "But at some point, you have to say what's the good of the neighborhood?"

Freaney said the county has a good record of getting people to fix their homes when a code officer spots a violation. But officials have had no luck in about 300 cases even though they've taken owners to court and placed liens on their property.

In some cases, the liens — which mount every day until the violation is fixed — exceed the value of the land. Some are more than $1 million and others are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

County Administrator Bob LaSala has asked staff members to come up with a new system to deal with hardened code scofflaws. LaSala has even suggested adding the lien to the owner's property tax bill as some other Florida counties have done. County attorneys are studying the idea.

But that won't help if the owner also fails to pay property taxes.

That's the case, county officials say, with one of the parcels on today's agenda. The house, 1216 Norwood Ave. in unincorporated Clearwater, has a lien of nearly $463,000 and an appraised value of about $20,805, according to the Pinellas County Property Appraiser. Property taxes were last paid in 2008, records show.

The county wants to foreclose on it, a process that could take at least 90 to 180 days. After the foreclosure, the property would be sold at auction. The lien would be cleared and the sales price could offset some of the county's expenses.

Anthony Torres, whose Anthony Torres Revocable Trust owns the property, runs a small mortgage company in Tampa.

"I got stuck with it as a direct result of the previous owner not paying their mortgage," Torres said Monday. "The property was trash."

He has told both the Tampa Bay Times and county code officers that he simply can't pay to have the house fixed. Twenty owners defaulted on their mortgages at one time, Torres said, and he was unable to keep up with the demands of maintenance.

The county, he said Monday, should be more compassionate to people who did not cause the problems.

The three other properties are all in the unincorporated Lealman area. The county says that all three are uninhabitable and the buildings must be demolished.

That's a faster process than foreclosure and the owners will retain title to their property. The county will first determine if any of the buildings contain asbestos. If not, it will take a total of about 30 days to take them down. If asbestos is found, the process could take 30 to 45 days.

The owners will have to pay the lien and the demolition costs, which range from about $5,114 to about $9,980. The prices do not include asbestos removal.

Anne Lindberg can be reached at or (727) 893-8450.

Pinellas County warms up bulldozers for major code violators 05/21/12 [Last modified: Monday, May 21, 2012 10:51pm]
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