It may seem that the River Watch Homeowners Association in Tarpon Springs is running amok by threatening to take away a couple's home because they refuse to leash their dog when they take him for walks. But in this case, the homeowners association is in the right and has shown infinite patience against the stubborn and illogical defiance of Robert Wirth Jr. and his wife, Sandra Blaker.
Wirth and Blaker moved into River Watch in 1999 and have had several run-ins with the homeowners association. But none has gone on as long as the clash over their refusal to walk their black Labrador, Cole, on a leash. The couple has spent almost eight years, and by Wirth's estimate, about $100,000 fighting the leash rule. A lien has been placed on their home and a lawsuit to foreclosure on the lien has been filed.
All that, even though it is clear that Wirth and Blaker are not only violating the rule, but they are also being inconsiderate neighbors.
The 1995 version of the River Watch subdivision deed restrictions has a section on pets. Each household may have no more than two dogs or two cats or two birds and the pets "shall be properly leashed, caged or controlled in whatever manner is most practical whether it is located upon or off a lot." Regarding dogs, the section further states, "A dog must be kept on a leash at all times when outside."
Copies of deed restrictions are included in closing documents when people purchase a home. Their completion of the purchase implies their willingness to abide by the restrictions.
However, Wirth argues that his dog is so well behaved that it doesn't need to be on a leash. He says he has seen others in the neighborhood walking their dogs without leashes. He also contends that the deed restriction referring to leashed dogs is too broad and would require that dogs be on a leash even if they were contained in a fenced yard.
The homeowners association, unable to persuade Wirth to put a leash on the dog and faced with his public flaunting of the rule, fined him and his wife $1,000 in 2003. They didn't pay the fine. So the homeowners association put a lien on their home and filed a lawsuit to foreclose on the lien.
The lawsuit finally went to court last year. Circuit Judge Bruce Boyer ruled that the couple's actions violated the deed restrictions, that the fine was properly levied, and that the couple must pay the fine, plus interest, attorney fees and other costs to avoid having their home sold. Wirth said the amount he owes has reached $40,000.
Wirth and Blaker have appealed the judge's ruling. And they are still walking Cole without a leash.
Deed restrictions are created to protect the value of homeowners' property and to maintain the quality of life in a neighborhood. Sometimes, the rules are many and specific. Indeed, the River Watch restrictions go on for 34 pages. People who don't want to live under such rules should not purchase a home in a deed-restricted community.
Leash laws or rules are created to protect pets and residents. Wirth and Blaker apparently feel that their dog is so well behaved that nothing would cause it to dart into traffic or approach another pet or resident, but most people understand there are no guarantees when dealing with an animal. Wirth and Blaker also don't take into account that some people who are afraid of dogs are filled with anxiety when they see a dog that isn't on a leash. A leash provides an added measure of comfort and safety for all pets and people who share a neighborhood.
Wirth and Blaker should consider the legal liability they would bear if Cole, in a moment of uncharacteristic aggressiveness, bit someone, or if an individual afraid of dogs got hurt trying to get away from their unleashed pet.
The homeowners association has the obligation to enforce the deed restrictions — indeed, must do so to retain enforcement authority.
Rather than risk the loss of their home, Wirth and Blaker should pay the fine, put their dog on a leash and resolve to be good neighbors. And if they want to see Cole run free, they can do what other dog owners do — take him to one of the many dog parks now open in North Pinellas.