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Developers shoo away would-be fishermen

(ran NTP edition)

While fish have found their way into the retention ponds throughout Westchase, developers and residents here hope the people fishing for them will find their way out.

New signs are popping up along the shores of the subdivision's ponds that read: "No Fishing, No Parking." The signs were posted by the developer, Westchase Associates, and are a response to resident complaints and liability concerns.

"If somebody slipped and fell into one of those ponds and it's still in our name there would be a certain amount of liability associated with that," said Ty Johnston, Westchase project developer.

The fishing also leads to increased maintenance as workers pick up empty bait containers, tangled fishing line and soft drink cans left behind.

But perhaps a bigger issue to residents is the strangers who park their cars along the street.

"Most complaints we've gotten (from residents) have been from people who don't know who is fishing at these ponds so they feel less secure," Johnston said.

"I don't think anybody feels real comfortable with somebody fishing five feet from their back porch," said Dana Cornish, resident spokeswoman.

"The main thing we were trying to address was people parking anywhere they want to. These roads aren't made to have cars parked on them. They get crowded, and you can't see people running or Roller- blading around (the parked cars.)"

The signs may be helping to deter fishing, but there are still people who plop down their lawn chair next to a sign and cast away. And there isn't much the developer or residents can do besides ask them to stop.

Most of the ponds are owned by the Community Development District, which is considered a public entity, and therefore the ponds are public property.

"I've been told we can't put "No Trespassing" signs on public property, and we can't call the sheriff in," Johnston said.

Westchase Associates can ask the Sheriff's Office to remove people from the few ponds that the developer still owns, because they are on private property.

But Vincent Nuccio, a Tampa lawyer specializing in real estate and land use, said the public access to the ponds owned by the Community Development District could be argued.

"Just because something is owned by a public entity, that's not the end of the analysis," he said. "Just because a public incinerator is public doesn't mean people can go through there any time they want."

If the primary function of the ponds is to provide a drainage system then the district can regulate them so that they can perform their intended purpose, he said.

"There are cases that come out fairly regularly on the issue," Nuccio said. "In each instance it requires a case by case analysis to determine what is a reasonable regulation of the publicly owned facility."

Neighboring Countryway doesn't face the same enforcement problem as Westchase. Its ponds are owned by the Countryway Homeowners Association and are private property.

However, signs that went up last year still aren't keeping away all the fishermen and parked cars.

"I ran into a guy a couple nights ago that had pulled up on the grass and had a big light shining on the lake and he and his buddy were fishing," said Del Revels, secretary of the homeowners association. "They completely ignored the sign."

When Revels told them parking their car on the bank of the pond could damage the sprinkler system, they politely left. Other times, the authorities have been called when people ignore the "No Parking" signs.

"We pay our assessment for the maintenance of these ponds and the sprinkler system, and therefore we're not public," he said. "We don't want to maintain a park to provide a fishing lake for the general public."

Residents, however, are allowed to fish in the ponds as long as they don't park along the road and are not within 50 feet of a house.

So what kinds of fish are tempting anglers to defy warning signs and go out in the middle of the night?

"I've seen evidence of certain kinds of sunfish," Johnston said. "People catch all kinds of fish sitting out there."

And apparently the fish from these constructed drainage systems are as safe to eat as any in a natural lake or pond.

"I'm not aware of any health advisory on any type of small ponds," said Jordan Lewis, director of Environmental Health and Epidemiology for Hillsborough County. In fact, the only warning right now is for certain types of fish in the Hillsborough River and Tampa Bay that could contain mercury. Most retention ponds are too small to allow fish to accumulate a dangerous level of mercury, he said.

"The best rule of thumb anywhere is if a fish looks sick don't eat it," he added.

If you have a story about Westchase, call Katherine Snow Smith at 226-3342.

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