LARGO — The pipe at the bottom of Carol Worth's pond is coated in rust and has one large hole in its side. It looks like the side of a sunken ocean liner that has sat on the bottom of the ocean for a few decades.
This pipe, Worth says, was put there by Largo in 1976, and has cost her thousands of dollars since. If it isn't replaced soon, Worth and Roberta Hosken, president of a nearby homeowners association, fear it will collapse during a storm, causing part of Worth's street, Kent Place, to cave in and dozens of nearby homes to flood.
Largo officials agree the pipe is in bad shape, but they say it isn't their responsibility. The two sides are at a standstill. And every time it rains, Worth and Hosken worry the rusty old pipe will finally give.
"I get a pit in my stomach every time I look at that thing," Hosken said last week.
Worth, 72, moved into her home just south of Allen's Creek in 1969 with her husband, Joseph. They raised five children there. Joseph Worth, a former doctor at Morton Plant Hospital, died several years ago.
In 1976 Largo officials needed an easement onto the Worth's property so they could install sewer lines under the road. In exchange for the easement, the city agreed to upgrade the stormwater drainage on the Worth's property. That's when it put in the pipe, Worth says.
The pipe runs under Kent Place and dumps stormwater into Worth's pond. Until last year, she thought approximately 11 homes across the street drained into her pond and then into Allen's Creek.
Then Hosken, the president of Allen Creek Property Owner's Association, asked Largo to improve the neighborhood's drainage system. (Many of the nearby homes are in the Largo city limits, though Worth's is not).
A city engineer came out and said the pipe needed repair, but that Largo couldn't help. In ensuing conversations with city officials, Worth discovered two things:
1) Nearly 100 homes, not 11, are sending stormwater into her pond, which is about as big as an Olympic-size swimming pool. This explained why her pond often fills with algae, leaves and other refuse.
2) Because the pipe is on private property in the unincorporated county, Largo won't touch it.
Largo officials declined to comment because Worth has threatened to sue. Their words are in her notebooks, though.
Worth has copies of letters documenting her pond-related problems dating to the 1970s. She filed them in several notebooks, which she gives to each new person she calls about her problem.
Largo Assistant City Manager Mike Staffopoulos wrote Worth Aug. 26, 2010 and explained why Largo won't repair the pipe. While the city agreed in 1976 to put in stormwater improvements, Staffopoulos wrote, it didn't agree to maintain the system. The pipe is on private property, so Largo can't touch it.
To Worth and Hosken, the city is failing to do the right thing — fix the pipe it installed. Worth estimates she has spent more than $30,000 having her pond dredged. She calls herself "the swamp lady" for all the time she's spent raking algae out of it.
Lawyers have provided little help. One told her to put a grate over the pipe, to prevent leaves and trash from washing into her pond. She did, and the next time it rained, the street flooded. Largo officials told Worth it was a felony to block a storm drain. She removed the grate.
City officials offered to install a stormwater treatment system on Worth's property, she says, but only if she annexes into the city. She doesn't want to.
Worth fears city officials will wait for the pipe to fail, causing her neighbors' homes to flood. Then, she thinks, the city could acquire her property through eminent domain, knock her home down and build a bigger retention pond.
"I can't afford to pay $20,000 or $30,000 to fight the city," she said. "It's black and white what they did ... We're at a crisis."
Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel is one of many people to have seen Worth's notebooks. Seel told Worth there was nothing the county could do for her, but offered to accompany Worth to a Largo City Commission meeting to plead her case.
In the end, Seel thinks nothing will get done until the old pipe collapses.
"It's too bad it will take an event like that to resolve a situation," Seel said. "We're here in government to serve and to do the right thing, and I would hope that everyone would come together and find an amicable solution."
Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or [email protected]