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St. Petersburg homeowner mired in code violations from 1980s

ST. PETERSBURG — It's the type of thing that would have embarrassed her virtuous mother-in-law, says Caroll Carroll. Eleven years after the elderly woman's death, the city discovered that work on the Florida room she had enclosed to accommodate her son, his wife and four children had been done illegally.

Carroll said her mother-in-law, who never had a credit card and paid cash for everything, always tried to do what was right. Nonetheless, city officials say the renovation on her two-bedroom home during the 1980s was done without a permit.

Now, it is Carroll's problem. She inherited the house, and she finds herself mired in code violations and resulting liens of more than $16,000.

"They're going to own this house pretty soon," she said, speaking at a small dining table in her home at 3530 Cherry St. NE. "I don't understand why it would fall on me. It's been so long, it should have been grandfathered in.''

Carroll, 70, a part-time cashier at Publix, shuffled through a battered green folder of papers as she told her story. She pulled out a yellow door hanger from 2006 that was the first indication of trouble. The notice from the city said she should call to discuss violations that included rotten wood, sandbags and mildew at the back of her house.

"I guess when they checked the property, they found out I didn't have a permit,'' she said.

Codes director Gary Bush said the inspection resulted from a complaint. The violations were related to the illegal room, he said.

Carroll has been told she can resolve the problem by getting an "after-the-fact'' permit, but she's concerned the process might cost more than she could afford. "Right now, I need a new roof and new air conditioning,'' she said, adding that she doesn't even have homeowners' insurance.

She said she attempted to get a reverse mortgage to raise money to cover the code violations, but that fell through.

Over the years, she has gotten estimates for the work. One contractor said it would cost $5,000 but wanted the money up front, she said. "I had one man come here and said I had to raise the floor and the roof. I even hired a lawyer at one point,'' she said, adding that the pro bono lawyer scared her by saying that the city could tear down the illegal room and charge her for the demolition.

Rick Dunn, the city's building official, confirmed that the Florida building code allows the portion of property that has not been permitted or inspected to be demolished after a certain amount of time.

"I have not had to exercise that authority, as our goal is to assist the property owner and bring the structure into compliance and make sure it is safe for habitation,'' Dunn said in an e-mail. "That is our goal with Mrs. Carroll."

The past few years have been trying, said Carroll, whose husband, Eugene, died in 1999. She has gone before the Code Enforcement Board "many, many times'' and "always had to take time off work," she said.

The city filed liens — one for $3,250 and another for $13,250 — after she missed appearances before the code board, Bush said. "They were giving her additional time, and she failed to come back,'' he said.

Carroll said she doesn't remember missing any meetings.

In 2008, she was summoned to criminal court for the code violation and ordered to pay a fine. "The liens didn't seem to get the problem corrected,'' Bush said. "The court is standard procedure in our process. I think the city has worked with her. We have carried this case for quite a while."

The most recent letter from the city arrived in late November. It threatened a new lien or fines of up to $500 per day.

For now, the city will not take any more action against Carroll, Bush said. "This case is in abeyance right now while we're looking for ways to get these issues corrected, to find a solution to her problem. We are hoping we can get some assistance for her.''

She can ask the Code Enforcement Board to release the liens after the problem has been rectified, Bush said.

Dunn said Carroll has been referred to the city's Working to Improve Neighborhoods program, which could help pay for work needed to bring the room up to code. Carroll said she has picked up the application for the program, but balks at providing financial information about her renter — a daughter who lives at the house with her two young children.

"It's my house, my responsibility,'' she said.

Her connection to the property begins in 1982, when she and her husband moved to St. Petersburg from North Carolina with four of their five children. Her mother-in-law made plans to accommodate them by enclosing the Florida room. At the time, Carroll said, "it was a screened-in porch with electricity.''

She said her mother-in-law hired a contractor to do the work. He subcontracted the project and now says he can't understand why a permit wasn't pulled, Carroll said.

She says the city's demands are unfair and wonders why the work done almost three decades ago can't be grandfathered.

Dunn, the building official, said additions or alterations must meet codes that were in place during the original construction.

Carroll has several options for remedying the problem, Dunn said, including hiring a contractor to help her submit an application for a permit that would include plans for the room as it is. The city then would examine the plans and schedule an inspection to determine whether it complies with current building codes. Such an inspection, he said, could include a request to remove dry wall or other elements so that electrical, plumbing and mechanical work can be checked.

As an alternative, Carroll could hire an architect or engineer to examine the room and submit an affidavit saying that it meets Florida building codes or indicating what needs to be corrected, Dunn said. "We get those letters regularly,'' he said.

That option could cost about $200 to $1,000, he said.

Carroll said that might be something she could consider. "But if it doesn't meet code, I still wouldn't have the money to fix it.''

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

>> Fast facts

Buyer beware

• Get a property card from the city. It gives details of a house as it was originally built, including improvements made and permits filed. Enclosed carports and porches often are problem areas. The city has a program for porch, garage and carport enclosures approved and inspected with the original home and enclosed before March 1, 2002.

• Use a Realtor.

• Buying "as is'' means assuming the seller's responsibility.

• Hire a licensed home inspector.

Source: Rick Dunn, building official, city of St. Petersburg. Go to stpete.org/development/applications_and_forms/construction_services_forms.asp or call (727) 893-7231.

St. Petersburg homeowner mired in code violations from 1980s 02/15/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 15, 2011 4:24pm]
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