LARGO — Underneath the Paradise Island mobile home park lurks something foul: a sewer smell that rises when the wind is blowing and sometimes for no apparent reason at all.
It wafts from two manholes to just a few houses at its nadir, but at its peak, it blankets hundreds of homes in the 828-unit development, which was built in 1988.
There is no mistaking what the odor is: sewage, as in anything and everything flushed down the toilet or ground up in garbage disposals and sent down the drain.
The smell has been emanating for more than a decade, residents say. But until the park got a new manager last year, the problem went unresolved — both because nobody could tell exactly what it was, and intermittent complaints to city officials resulted in no solution.
Park manager Nancy Perry claims the smell is caused by gas buildup from Largo's nearby sewer line making its way into the park's privately owned system. The city says that is unlikely, as it spends hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on a chemical that neutralizes such smells.
Previous city inspections placed the blame on Paradise Island's system.
And thus, for several weeks, Perry, along with dozens of residents at her side and with the support of a neighboring mobile home park that also deals with the sewer smells, has been pushing for the city to act — or at least help in determining, once and for all, what the stink is all about.
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MaryAnn Mutti recalls the morning within the past year her screened-in back porch in Paradise Island became intolerable.
Since then, the quiet space with green plants and good light in the mornings has increasingly become off-limits to her and her five great-grandchildren, who frequently visit.
"I haven't been out on my porch all year. And it's a nice porch," Mutti said.
Her face still contorts when she remembers that morning. All she wanted was to drink her coffee.
"The smell went into my mouth right before my coffee went in," the prim former Bostonian said last week. She made a face that mimicked a gag reaction. "Raw sewage."
Others who live in the immaculately groomed community tell similar stories.
"If you don't smell it, there's something wrong with your schnoz," Perry said.
Those who live in many of the 751 homes in the nearby Fairway Village manufactured home community are also plugging their noses. A city sewer line that occupies its own easement separates the two 55-and-older communities.
"We have a terrible smell. … It affects all of our people, because if we ride our bikes or walk in the evening, the stench is overwhelming," Vernon Thompson, a member of Fairway Village's board of directors, told city commissioners last month.
What rankles Perry and her constituents more than the smell is her perception of the city's dismissive response — until recently, when her appearances before the City Commission involved City Manager Norton "Mac" Craig directly.
Since her impassioned public pleas began this fall, commissioners directed the city staff to seek a fair solution and formulate a plan to get to the bottom of the smell.
After all, the more than 1,000 residents who live in Paradise Island could be a force to be reckoned with if united. They are all over 55, and most of the non-Canadians vote locally, she said.
In Largo, which saw 6,155 ballots cast in the 2009 commission election, a single community would be a large bloc.
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The city manager, Craig, is now working with Perry and the residents to bring in a third-party engineering firm to conduct an unbiased assessment.
He admitted it is difficult to tell for certain where the liability lies.
"All of us sitting around a table have a different idea of what could have happened," he said. "I don't know that it's not the city's fault."
Though he suspects some things that do fall under Paradise Island's purview could be to blame.
"I know they do have some manholes that have not been maintained," he said. "But I understand Ms. Perry — what her position is, where she's coming from."
Perry also has found satisfaction in the city's recent response, albeit more than a month after her complaints began. If the independent analysis says it's Paradise Island's fault the smell exists, then she will take responsibility.
"We're very open to suggestions," she said.
But Perry, who manages three other parks around Tampa Bay and lives in Brandon, said she doesn't drive to Largo City Hall to lobby for her residents so often for naught.
Does she think the city sewer is absolutely to blame for the stench?
"Is the pope Catholic?" she replied.
Dominick Tao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 580-2951.