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County may force fruit stand to close

A Palm Harbor fruit stand has been illegal for more than 30 years, officials find. The owner says he will fight attempts to squeeze him out.

The Wiggins Fruit stand has been a fixture on County Road 1 for more than 30 years.

It has also been an illegal business the entire time. No one ever complained about it, so the county left the stand alone _ until now.

County officials have recommended that Spiro Pittaras, who has owned the produce stand since 1995, pack up the business and move. A final order from County Administrator Fred Marquis is not expected for another week or so.

Pittaras can appeal the county's decision to Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court.

Residents did not seem to mind when Bonita Wiggins opened the stand around 1967 as a small, seasonal operation shortly after her husband suffered a heart attack. She sold citrus grown in her family's grove next door.

Pittaras, who bought Mrs. Wiggins' home along with the stand, wanted to continue the operation. But he said he expanded it to a year-round fruit and produce stand in response to customer demand.

County code enforcement officers began looking into the legitimacy of the fruit stand last year when several neighbors complained that the business near Ohio Avenue generated too much stop-and-go traffic along CR 1.

Whether Pittaras could keep his stand open hinged on when it was established.

The county created zoning rules in 1963, effectively barring new commercial activities from neighborhoods. Existing businesses could be grandfathered in, and county officials originally thought that was what happened with the Wiggins Fruit stand.

In that case, as long as Pittaras did not substantially change the stand, he might be able to keep it open.

However, using old aerial photographs and the memories of longtime residents, the county recently discovered that Mrs. Wiggins opened her fruit stand around 1967, years after the zoning rules were established.

That meant that the fruit stand had operated illegally all along. The county never knew it because residents of that neighborhood never pointed it out before, said James Bennett, chief assistant county attorney.

"We operate on a complaint basis. We don't search high and low . . . for violations of this type," he said. "No one ever complained about this woman's fruit stand, so it was a non-issue. When we started getting complaints about the expansion, it came to light."

Jake Stowers, assistant county administrator, acted as the zoning examiner during a hearing about the fruit stand May 3. After reviewing all the information gathered, he issued an opinion June 30 recommending that the fruit stand be forced to close.

Pittaras and his attorney then had the opportunity to file new information that might sway the county's decision. Marquis will issue a final order.

Pittaras said he thinks it is unfair that the county is targeting his fruit stand when it allowed Mrs. Wiggins to operate her stand for so long without interference. Mrs. Wiggins died in 1997.

"Now because somebody complains they shut me down?" Pittaras said. "I'll fight them all the way to the end. If they make a decision to close me, I'll sue the county for discrimination. Because I am Greek, because my English is not good, they try to close me. That's exactly how I feel."

Jo An Totty, who owns a home near the fruit stand, said Pittaras' ethnicity had nothing to do with neighbors' complaints. Totty said he contacted the county because she was worried that children and other pedestrians might be hurt by cars pulling on and off CR 1 to visit the stand.

"It doesn't matter what nationality you are. It's still illegal" to operate the stand, Totty said. "It's too much traffic. We have more cars than we have ever had in our life. This man is creating a problem. We're not condemning him _ it's the traffic."

Mrs. Wiggins' sister and a niece live next door to Pittaras. Niece Sharon Agner said she and her mother, Josephine, never complained about Pittaras' operation.

When county officials contacted them before holding the May 3 hearing, Agner said she and her mother jotted down a few concerns they had, mainly with shoppers driving onto their property, picking the fruit from their grove and leaving behind trash. They also wanted Pittaras to remove Mrs. Wiggins' name from the fruit stand sign.

Agner said last month that erecting a fence around her family's property would probably solve most of those problems. "If the majority of the community wanted the fruit stand, we don't care," she said. "Honestly, we have not campaigned to do anything."

Pittaras said he used to live a block south of the fruit stand on Virginia Avenue. When Mrs. Wiggins put her property up for sale, he decided to buy it so he could operate the produce stand and work near his home.

He said he does not intend to give up the business.

"I figured I'd buy the property of hers and operate the fruit stand over here and make my living. Otherwise, why should I buy?" Pittaras said. "I don't understand why the county is pushing me."

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