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Valrico mobile home park where toddler died lacks migrant inspections

VALRICO — The mobile home park where a toddler was found dead in a septic tank lacks a permit to operate as a migrant labor camp, officials said Tuesday.

The Silver Lane Mobile Home Park is mostly home to migrant farm workers. That means it is required to be inspected more frequently and closely during the growing season than regular home parks, an official said.

The additional inspections are meant to ensure that parks where farm workers live are healthy and safe. The Hillsborough County Health Department begins those inspections over the summer, before farm workers arrive to pick winter crops.

If the park had been properly permitted, would inspectors have caught the uncovered septic tank where the body of 2-year-old Luis Martinez was found Saturday?

"We don't know," Health Department environmental supervisor Gregg Rottler said. "Who could know that?"

On Tuesday, however, Rottler told Silver Lane Mobile Home Park owner Kenneth Winter to apply for a migrant housing permit for both the parks, one on each side of Silver Lane, owned by his company, Silver Lane LLC.

Juan Martinez, Luis Martinez's father, told the St. Petersburg Times on Sunday he picks strawberries here and blueberries in Michigan. A resident of the park, where many of the vehicles have South Carolina or Tennessee tags, told officials that many residents are migrant farm workers who come to pick crops.

At the second park, on the other side of Silver Lane, most residents are migrants, Winter told officials.

Winter, 52, who lives in Dover, did not respond to an e-mail or several telephone messages Tuesday from the Times. But in talking to officials, "he mentioned what occurred was a tragedy," Rottler said.

Once permitted as a migrant labor camp, Silver Lane would be inspected twice each quarter during the growing season. Regular mobile home parks are inspected twice a year.

Plus, unlike at regular mobile home parks, Health Department inspectors look inside the mobile homes themselves at migrant camps.

At the migrant camps, the inspectors set a limit on the number of people who can live in each unit based on the available living space, Rottler said. They also look for holes in the walls and floors, leaky plumbing, roof leaks, roach and rat infestations and the provision of sufficient lighting and hot and cold water.

Rottler gave Winter 30 days to address problems identified at the park and get the proper permit, though officials can give him more time if he is working to comply.

"Our goal is to secure compliance to ensure that people live in healthy and safe housing," Rottler said.

If a migrant camp owner balked at getting the proper permit or did not correct violations found in an inspection, he or she could be fined up to $500 a day for each day the violations continued.

On Monday, county code enforcement inspectors swept through both parks owned by Silver Lane LLC and found a second improperly secured septic tank.

On Tuesday, code enforcement investigator William Langford gave Winter notices to correct septic and electrical problems at both parks within 24 hours. If he does not, the county could take the case to the Code Enforcement Board, which can assess fines of up to $1,000 for each day that the violations continue.

"It appears at this time that his goal is to reach compliance," Langford said.

A sheriff's investigation into the incident is trying to determine whether it was an accident and whether there was criminal negligence on anyone's part in the boy's death, said Major Harold Winsett, the sheriff's division commander for criminal investigations.

"It appears that this is an accident, although the guys have not completed (the investigation) yet," Winsett said. It's too soon to say whether any charges might be filed, he said.

Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.

Valrico mobile home park where toddler died lacks migrant inspections 12/01/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 2, 2009 12:04am]
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