TAMPA — Typically, Spencer Kass is the guy talking to City Hall about things he wants to improve around town.
President of the Virginia Park Neighborhood Association, he led a petition drive to force a referendum on banning panhandling. He has served on the City Council's Budget Advisory Committee, lobbied the council on a variety of issues and applied for an open seat on the council itself.
But during a City Council workshop last week, the discussion portrayed Kass in a different light — as a landlord with a problem property.
Council member Frank Reddick and several residents of east Tampa said a 2.8-acre truck yard that is owned by Kass's company (but run by a tenant) has created a nuisance. Reddick showed photos, some taken last year, of parked heavy trucks, tall weeds, a pile of bulging black plastic garbage bags and gaps in a wooden stockade fence.
"I'm sick and tired of seeing this. I drive by it every day," Reddick said, demanding the city pursue more aggressive action on the property at 5315 N 37th St. "It's a shame and a disgrace."
Residents complained to the council of exhaust, dust and around-the-clock noise from trucks coming and going or sitting and idling. They claimed there appear to be a couple of men who live in old modular buildings on the property and bathe outdoors.
"It's a nuisance to our community," said Toinette Gaines, 39, who lives across the street from the truck yard's gate. "I just want this to be brought to justice. We've been dealing with this way too long."
Kass, 39, was not present at the meeting and later said no one told him the issue was going to come up.
"It's even distressful to me," he said. "If they wanted to have a helpful conversation, they would have invited me."
Kass said the photos were old and complaints about things like garbage and holes in the fence had been addressed. He went on to say allegations that the business is a junk yard are baseless and that "there's been no finding by anybody that any violation has occurred."
City officials acknowledge that the property's commercial-intensive zoning does allow the repair and maintenance of trucks, but that's only part of Tampa's land development regulation.
But a key point, they said, is that Kass never went through a required change-of-use review, which could trigger the need for improvements and city permits, after his company bought the land in 2006.
That is one reason Kass is currently under citation, is in violation of city codes and is in front of the code enforcement board, according to Thomas Snelling, Tampa's director of planning and development services.
Kass said he didn't have the name of the tenant but described him as a "very nice, hard-working individual who's trying to put food on his family's table."
Kass said he's complained to the city about some of the neighbors who are complaining about him, in particular about one with school buses parked at the house, but has seen no follow-up action. He also said he's wrangled with the city for years about a sidewalk that he says the city poured on his property.
Friday morning, a reporter who visited the site found what appeared to be fresh wooden slats covering nearly every gap on a privacy fence at least 8 feet tall that ran the length of the property along N 37th Street. The property is less than a block south of Hillsborough Avenue, behind an Auto Zone store, and is on the edge of a residential area.
Behind the fence, the property consists of a large asphalt pad with at least a dozen heavy trucks and perhaps half that many cars parked on it. There also were a couple of forklifts, an older recreational vehicle and a modular building similar to those used as temporary construction offices. A truck was idling in the middle of the property, though the reporter didn't notice the noise from the sidewalk.
A worker said the manager was not available, but no one was living on the property.
City officials say codes do not allow people to live in the trailers or in their trucks and that allegation will be investigated.
There are no code enforcement fines owed on the property, but officials told the council there's an agreement to submit a commercial site plan that addresses issues like buffering, parking and access, plus construction documents sealed by an engineer by July 15.
After that, officials said, Kass has until Aug. 26 to pull any necessary permits to improve the property, Sept. 9 to start construction, Oct. 12 to call for inspections on the work and Nov. 11 to address landscaping and irrigation. If deadlines are missed, code enforcement fines could start to accrue, they said.
City officials say they've responded to complaints about "deplorable" conditions on the property repeatedly, only to see things get cleaned up temporarily, then fall back into disarray.
"It's a very frustrating cat-and-mouse game," Snelling told the council.
"Now it's time for the property owner to do what's right," said Jake Slater, Tampa's director of neighborhood empowerment, which oversees code enforcement. "We have these time lines in effect. We're going to hold him to the fire. It's been too long. Too darned long."