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Boat, RV owners gear up for vote

Candidates aren't the only ones gearing up for the city election next month in Largo. Just as revved up are the owners of boats, trucks, recreational vehicles and, yes, airplanes who like to park them in their front driveways and yards.

These people have much to lose if March 13 balloting on a referendum item turns out as most city officials hope it will.

On election day, city commissioners will ask voters to approve an ordinance that would ban the parking of those vehicles, as well as all abandoned and disabled vehicles, to back yards and storage garages.

R. W. Gooch said such an ordinance would impose real hardship on him at his home on Washington Avenue.

For the past eight or nine years, Gooch has kept two inoperable airplanes in his front yard. The back of his house is so close to his property line, he could never fit the airplanes between home and fence.

"My wife and I intended to fix them up," said Gooch, who has lived at the same address for the past 50 years. "She and I bought material to cover them. Then she died. I've had trauma over it."

Gooch said he has had his house, the airplanes and everything else he owns on the market for three years but hasn't received an acceptable offer.

The city keeps harassing him to clean up his place and move the airplanes out, he said.

"They've caused me a lot of hardship," Gooch said. "I think I should have some time to finish selling."

City Manager Stephen Bonczek sees things differently.

Bonczek said the parking ordinance would go a long way toward "enhancing the character of Largo neighborhoods," including Gooch's, and "preventing commercial intrusion. One of my main objectives has been to improve the appearance of the city."

But opponents of the ordinance say it is too restrictive and infringes on their rights as property owners to do what they want with their property.

"In our opinion, what the city is trying to do is force deed restrictions" on everyone in the city, said Ron Welsh, a co-chairman of the drive to defeat the ordinance.

"If neighborhoods want deed restrictions, all they have to do is set them up."

Bonczek said he understands what opponents are saying, "but we look at it a little differently. We say your vehicles are intruding on your neighbors. We are here to serve the common good."

Welsh and a group of 18 hard-core ordinance opponents are already out working the neighborhoods to make sure that voters are aware the issue is on the March 13 ballot.

"We've come up with these leaflets," Welsh said. "We go through the neighborhoods and put them on vehicles that would be parked illegally if the ordinance is approved."

Welsh said the leaflets warn owners that the vehicles could not be parked in their present locations if the ordinance were in effect.

Welsh and his co-workers refer to the proposed regulation as the "snob ordinance."

"It discriminates against working class people and retirees who move down here to try to enjoy what's left of their lives," Welsh said.

The working class and retirees are likely to live in neighborhoods of small homes with a minimum of distance between houses and little or no back yards, Welsh said.

There is no place to put their boat or RV except in front. And owners aren't likely to have enough money to pay expensive storage fees.

Welsh, who doesn't own an RV, boat or truck, objects to the ordinance on principle. The city, he said, has no business telling people where they can park their own property.

Apparently, at least 4,000 Largo residents agree with him.

Last spring, commissioners narrowly approved the parking ordinance. But opponents, led by Welsh and Largo resident Bill McLaughlin, got 10 percent or 4,000 of Largo's registered voters to sign a petition opposing it.

That forced the issue back before commissioners for a second look last June. When commissioners failed to repeal the ordinance at that time, a referendum became automatic.

Welsh is counting on those 4,000 people to go to the polls and defeat the ordinance March 13.

While Welsh and McLaughlin were working to get their petitions signed, neighborhood homeowners groups were working just as hard to get commissioners to stand by their original vote.

Largo Mayor George McGough said he received more mail favoring the ordinance than he did opposing it. He referred to the opponents as a "vocal minority."

Charles Ryan, who lives in Four Seasons Mobile Home Park on Ulmerton Road, where most vehicles prohibited in the ordinance are not allowed, said he doesn't even like to drive through single family neighborhoods littered with RVs, boats and trucks.

"Only a slob would want things to stay this way," Ryan said.

He said he would like to live in a single-family neighborhood but never would consider moving as long as his neighbors could park such vehicles in front.

Ryan said he definitely will vote in favor of the ordinance "and I'm encouraging my neighbors to vote that way also."

George Antrobius, active with the Imperial Grove Homeowners Association, said his group already has endorsed the ordinance.

"We've seen a lot of improvements" since commissioners began considering restrictive parking, Antrobius said. "We have seen boats and commercial vehicles leave our neighborhood."

Antrobius said he has been going house to house talking up the ordinance.

"The way the ordinance goes, so goes Largo," he said.