ST. PETE BEACH — City officials have investigated more than 90 zoning code violations this year, a number that is likely to rise with a sheriff's deputy now in charge of code enforcement.
Common issues are illegal outbuildings, overgrown yards, inoperable vehicles, trash, debris and stagnant pools.
The pools are a major and continuing problem, particularly for abandoned properties that are in foreclosure, according to community development director George Kinney.
"Foreclosures can take up to two years, and the banks can't really do anything until they officially own the property," Kinney said.
Over time, yards become overgrown and swimming pools become stagnant, changing from a normal blue to shades of green and then to an algae-filled black.
All of that leads to an inevitable stench and swarms of happily breeding mosquitos.
"Our hands are tied. We don't have the ability to clean the pools, so we call the county to put live fish in the pools," Kinney said.
The minnows thrive and multiply from a few dozen to hundreds within a few months.
In fact, over the past 10 years the county has put minnows in more than 900 stagnant pools throughout the county, according to Cort Milne, an administrative support specialist with Pinellas County mosquito control.
The fish eat the mosquito larvae but can do nothing to fix the water color or odor.
Each fish-treated pool is posted with a sign asking that the county be called before pool-cleaning chemicals are added to the water.
"We remove the minnows with nets,'' Milne said. "We take care of our employees."
Sometimes code violations involve more than tall grass or mosquitos. In one unusual case last year, the city decided to get a court order after repeated hearings and fines proved ineffective.
"It was a real public nuisance and a danger to the community. The neighbors were more than upset," he said. "The problem had been going on for years."
At one point the occupied property, on 78th Avenue, had a dozen barbecue grills, more than 15 bicycles, abandoned furniture and appliances in the front yard, driveway and scattered throughout the property.
In addition, the property was littered with cans, garbage and building debris.
Fines reached more than $28,000. They were eventually paid, but the violations continued.
The property is not currently violating city codes, Kinney said.
The court order is still in effect, and if the property falls back into noncompliance, "the owner will have to face a judge and could even be jailed," Kinney said.
Normally, property owners first receive a notice of code violations. If the issues are not corrected in a timely manner, the violation is referred to a special master, who can impose fines of up to $250 a day.
More than $10,000 was paid last year either in fines or to satisfy property liens. That number has risen to more than $17,000 this year.
A home on 55th Avenue that was foreclosed on in 2009 has accumulated more than $90,000 in fines.
The city has levied more than $100,000 in fines on another home on Moody Street.
A third foreclosed home on 28th Avenue has racked up more than $156,000 in fines since 2010. The city also spent $800 to remove a beehive that had settled on the property.
None of these fines have been paid. In such cases, the city usually records a lien on the property that must be paid before the property can be sold.
The city's new code enforcement officer, Chris Kohmann, is a sheriff's deputy capable of making arrests if needed when occupants or property owners can be found. He is also available for law enforcement calls that are not code related.
"This is a win-win," Mayor Steve McFarlin said.