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St. Petersburg plugs loophole in pooper-scooper law

ST. PETERSBURG — In an alley behind his home, Dennis Murphy touched his chest and stretched his arms wide to demonstrate the problem he says has bedeviled him for more than 10 years.

Once, Murphy said as he gestured, when his next-door neighbor was ordered to clean up his dog kennels, the man piled up a mountain of feces that stunk and attracted swarms of flies. Another time, he said, his young neighbor collected two trash bags of feces and buried them outside his fence, near Murphy's home.

Murphy spoke of his frustration as he stood near a former garage at 900 16th St. N, pointing to what appeared to be mostly old — and some new — excrement from two small dogs that wagged a welcome and licked his hand through the fence. Over the years, Murphy said, he has complained to every possible agency in Pinellas County, but has gotten little relief.

"I can't open my windows,'' he said, adding that the odor has been overpowering in his living room.

That day, he learned the city of St. Petersburg planned to amend an ordinance relating to his problem. The laws as they stood required dog owners, "or a person in charge of a dog," to pick up excrement occurring in their presence "on any property not belonging to the owner or person in charge of the dog." They made no mention of how the poop should be handled on a pet owner's property. In the past few weeks, the city has moved to close the legal loophole in the ordinance dating back to 1973.

"We're going to enlarge it so now no property, whether residential or commercial, could have dog excrement on it to the extent that it creates a health hazard or a public nuisance,'' assistant city attorney Erica Smith said in the days before it went before the City Council.

"I think that it is for the benefit of everyone that we clarify this and get it passed," Smith said.

City Council members approved the amended ordinance last week.

The proposed change was triggered by Murphy's complaints, code compliance assistance director Gary Bush said. He said his department has cited the 16th Street N property "on and off for while." Inspections and reinspections have occurred regularly since November, apparently without improvement.

Pinellas County Property Appraiser records show the property at the corner of 16th Street and Ninth Avenue N is owned by Ardith Rutland Richards, 56, a member of a prominent St. Petersburg family that made a name locally in banking and retail. According to the Pinellas County Sheriff's website, Richards has been arrested twice —- in 2007 and 2009 —- for failing to appear in court in response to citations for municipal ordinance violations, specifically relating to disposal of garbage, outdoor storage and an inoperative motor vehicle. Richards did not return phone calls for comment.

Murphy, 59, who was living next door to the commercial property before Richards bought it in 2001, said it has been used by her son, James Richards, 31.

"When they originally bought the building, we thought they would be good neighbors,'' he said.

Instead, the younger Richards brought in monster trucks, off-terrain vehicles and a mammoth trailer and often blocked the alley, Murphy said. His neighbor also set up four kennels and began raising dogs, leading to the excrement problem, he said. James Richards declined to talk about the issue when the Tampa Bay Times reached him by phone.

The building at 900 16th St. N appears to be empty. A boat, trailer and various objects occupy the fenced yard, along with two dogs. Murphy, who has had code violations of his own in connection with ongoing renovations at his single-family home, said someone began dropping by to feed the animals after he complained that they had been abandoned.

He is pessimistic about the benefits of the amended ordinance.

"Even though this new ordinance will probably do some good, somewhere, sometime, someplace, I don't think it's going to have an effect on the property next to me,'' he said. "They'll just pay the fine and not do anything and I'm the one who is going to have to live with it.''

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this article. Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283.

St. Petersburg plugs loophole in pooper-scooper law 05/08/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 8, 2012 3:13pm]
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