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"We are not carnies.' // Festival campers draw complaints

DL LARGO

New people have moved into the neighborhood, and not all those who have been living there are pleased.

The newcomers live differently than the rest.

The new residents _ artists and artisans who travel with the Renaissance Festival _ live in tents, old buses, campers and cars. There's no running water on the site they've rented, which is on Donegan Road in an unincorporated section of the county. Bathrooms are seven rented portable toilets.

The festival group has put a stockade fence around the camp to make it more private.

"We are not carnies," said Bill Casteel, a 26-year-old metal sculptor from New York. "Each of us is an independent business. People don't understand us or that we raise revenue for the area. We also provide entertainment and escape."

Those living in the camp have paid fees to have power, potable water and sanitary facilities installed on the lot.

"This will be a better place when we leave," candlemaker Terry Gibson said. "Everything here is installed and up to code."

The group has its own security and does not tolerate people who break the rules. They need security, they say, because of people like the man who repeatedly drives by in a green Cadillac, throwing fire crackers over the fence into the camp.

"These are artisans from all over the country," Gibson said. "We have come together to provide a great crafting feat."

But some folks in nearby neighborhoods see it differently.

"We think they could have gone to a regular campground," said Joseph Dilwith, president of the nearby Waterview Estates homeowners group.

For six consecutive weekends each spring, the festival takes place on the back portion of Largo Central Park. In the past, festival employees have camped out on the festival site, just over a fence from a subdivision called Park Place.

During the festival's 16-year history in Largo, Park Place residents have complained to city officials about trash, foul language and noise they say came from the Renaissance campers. So last year, when festival organizers negotiated a new lease with the city, Largo officials specified no camping on the festival grounds.

Lynne Motejaitis, general manager of the festival, said that in searching for a new camp ground, she happened upon the vacant lot on Donegan Road and found that it could be leased.

"It's so close to the festival," Motejaitis said. Employees "don't have to cross a major thoroughfare to reach the festival grounds."

When she applied to the county for a permit, she said she was told she would have to get the approval of nearby neighbors.

She said she approached another development in the area, Adam's Landing, and was present the night the homeowners' board of directors voted to approve the vacant lot as a temporary campground for the festival employees.

Motejaitis said she did not ask Waterview Estates residents for approval, because she thought they lived too far from the site to care.

But that is not the case.

Dilwith said he complained to county officials about the permit for camping on the lot. And Fred Steffans, president of the New Haven Condos association, which is also nearby, said some of his neighbors have started a petition drive to stop the camping.

As a result of neighbors' concerns, Motejaitis said she signed a document saying this would be the only year her employees would camp on the Donegan Road site. Next year, she'll have to find another location.

Willard Osteen, whose back yard borders the campground, sells fresh vegetables from a stand in his front yard. Some of the campers have been over to buy Osteen's tomatoes, potatoes and onions.

Osteen said the day the campers moved in, he called the county. "Not to complain," Osteen said, "but I was surprised the county allowed it. There are probably some nice people over there, but there are no facilities."

Osteen said some of his regular customers "are very concerned" about the proximity of the campsite.

"It's not the most favorable location," said Osteen, who has lived in the county since 1957. "But those people have to have a place to stay."

Assistant County Administrator Gay Lancaster said that when Motejaitis approached her about leasing the Donegan Road site, "we thought we would be helping Largo" by granting the permit.

Lancaster said she was aware of neighbors' original complaints but had not heard of any problems since the festival employees moved in.

Osteen, Dilwith and Steffans said that so far, they haven't heard of any problems either. The festival runs through April 14.

"We've done everything we can do for everyone," Lancaster said. "And it's just not easy."

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