Friday, April 20, 2018
News Roundup

Trails at Rivard residents upset over response to abandoned homes

BROOKSVILLE — At first look, the Trails at Rivard could be a picture postcard for Central Florida golf course communities.

A landscaped sign adorns the entrance off U.S. 41, just south of Brooksville. Just beyond that, a row of neatly kept villas fronts the boulevard, with a wide swath of the golf course spread out behind. On a recent day, a pair of sandhill cranes poked around in the grass.

But just a few hundred feet away, the postcard image dissolves, a shocking reminder of the bust that followed the housing boom.

Side by side with handsome, manicured, Florida-style homes is an unfinished gray, concrete-block shell. The house has a roof, but no windows or doors. The wood framing inside is weathered.

After a few other occupied houses stands a concrete-block wall with no roof on a weedy lot. Rebar juts out of the blocks toward the sky.

Both of the unfinished homes sport bright orange posters warning they are unsafe.

Then there's the empty lot where what neighbors call "the haunted house" once stood. Another abandoned construction project, the county demolished it at the end of August. The two-story structure was so compromised that some say the county's building official declined to inspect the upstairs because of the poor condition of the staircase.

"It's sad,'' Juliann Mayles said of the abandoned buildings in her neighborhood.

Mayles used to be able to see the haunted house from her home on Old Oak Trail. She can still see three other abandoned homes.

"It's so senseless,'' she said.

Her husband, Al, has been working for several years to get the county to force the builder, Costa Homes president Paul Bakkalapulo, to deal with the eyesores.

Those sites are the most obvious problem. But the maintenance of overgrown lots and the clearing of commercial construction equipment from the neighborhood also have been issues.

Bakkalapulo said he is working to resolve the concerns with the county, but residents worry that the latest negotiations are just another delay.

Last week, Mayles, his wife and more than a dozen other Rivard residents met with County Administrator Len Sossamon, Commissioner Nick Nicholson and key county staffers from the planning, code enforcement and building departments.

For more than two hours, officials and the residents discussed the issues and the county staff detailed how it is trying to get Bakkalapulo back in compliance and resolve the issue of unsafe buildings.

County officials also acknowledged that reductions in the county budget in recent years have taken a toll on the county's ability to respond to such problems.

Despite assurances from the county's staff, residents remained skeptical that they're close to resolving a problem they have lived with for seven years.

"Would you live there?'' Mrs. Mayles asked Ron Pianta, assistant administrator for planning and development.

"No,'' Pianta said. "If I were you, I would be complaining also''

• • •

On the day of the meeting with county officials, Rivard resident Barbara Stanley chatted with a neighbor who is a real estate saleswoman. She told Stanley that some Realtors won't even bring people into Rivard because of its condition.

"It's like living in inner-city Detroit,'' Stanley said of the overgrown lots and vandalized home sites.

Cheryl Crawford lives across the street from two of the abandoned construction sites.

"Our property taxes are so high. To have to look out at that all the time, it's worse than an eyesore,'' she said. "It's dangerous.''

Permits for the nine abandoned houses were issued November 2006. For years, the residents complained, and then, early in 2012, they say the county drafted an agreement that gave Bakkalapulo 18 months to remedy the problem.

The work was to be completed by August of this year, but only one home was finished by the deadline — one at the front of the subdivision. Another had been demolished by the county, and a lien was placed on the lot.

A third house on the list, directly behind Stanley's home, was issued a new permit, and construction resumed. Stanley said there had been no activity there for years. But over the past few months, a crew put up stucco on the outside and drywall on the exposed interior.

In August and September, the county building official revoked the permits on the six remaining sites, declaring the structures unsafe.

On Aug. 27, county building department field inspector Vic Heisler wrote to Bakkalapulo, describing what needed to happen with the remaining six construction sites.

By Friday, he must either begin demolition or obtain building permits to complete those structures. Bakkalapulo said he wants to complete construction, so he was given a specific list of criteria he must meet.

He must submit an engineer's certification that each structure can be repaired and have new plans complying with the current Florida Building Code. And he must provide a performance bond or set $10,000 in escrow for each house that will be used to demolish it if he doesn't meet the time line.

Those times include completing a final roof inspection by Dec. 7; completed windows, doors, stucco and exterior painting by Jan. 7, and a certificate of occupancy by Feb. 7.

"Understand Paul that it is the desire of the Building Department to see these houses completed and have the Rivard community again become a desirable place for current and future residents to live,'' Heisler wrote.

Bakkalapulo has begun to submit paperwork but has not agreed to the escrow account or a bond. He called the demand "a unique requirement'' and said he knew of no rule that requires that kind of financial assurance to the county.

He told the Times that he has every intention of working with the county to get the job done and noted that he has a vested interest in making the community succeed. He still owns most of the undeveloped lots and the second phase of the development, for which there is no approved master plan.

"We understand that it's a tough situation, and we're trying to work through it,'' Bakkalapulo said. "It's something that can be done with time.''

• • •

Bakkalapulo's time is short by the county's order.

Residents hope county officials will stick to their guns because they said they've heard it all before when it comes to solving the problems.

During the recent meeting with county officials, residents repeatedly expressed distrust toward the county, as well as the builder.

"It's like a game,'' Mayles told officials. "It's like a game being played out at our expense. It's just ludicrous.''

The county didn't hold the builder's feet to the fire, didn't fine him previously and is now granting another extension, he said.

"Why should we believe this is going to happen now?'' he asked.

"This has got to happen,'' Nicholson said.

"I understand your skepticism,'' Pianta said.

He explained how with a shrinking staff and dwindling financial resources, the county cannot keep up with the kinds of programs that address code issues or pay for the demolition of unsafe buildings.

"It's nobody's fault,'' he said.

During the lean times, Pianta said, there was a conscious effort to not enforce some rules. But when Sossamon became administrator, he said, putting programs and enforcement back in place became a priority.

He also noted, "Historically, the building official has tried to work with a builder, and this builder took advantage of that.'

"Frankly, I'm embarrassed, and I understand your frustration," Pianta told the frustrated residents. "I know why you're angry.''

"Just give us a chance,'' Nicholson asked them.

The morning after the meeting, lawn mowers were buzzing throughout Rivard, and overgrown lots that had been deemed to be out of compliance with county codes were being trimmed.

Despite the work, residents questioned whether county officials will follow through with their promises.

"Our objection is that they gave him another six months,'' Mayles said. "What's our guarantee?''

"I don't think that the people of this community are unreasonable,'' Stanley said. "We're not against this guy making a living . . . but we just think it is his duty to press on and make this right.''

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