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Veteran says RV is a necessity

A federal jury will decide whether the Beacon Woods man can be granted an exception to keep the vehicle parked in his driveway.

As Steve Sidney tells it, the 23-foot Winnebago jutting out of his driveway on Sandburst Lane is a medical necessity. A wounded Vietnam veteran who wears an ileostomy bag, the 55-year-old Beacon Woods man contends he needs the privacy and sanitary conditions the recreational vehicle affords.

To the homeowners association of Beacon Woods East, however, the RV represents a clear violation of deed restrictions, and a danger to pedestrians trying to get past the sidewalk it blocks.

Three years after the dispute began, it is playing out before a jury this week at U.S. District Court in Tampa. On Sidney's side is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has sued the homeowners association and accused it of discrimination against the disabled under the Fair Housing Act.

Michael Barrett, a lawyer with the Department of Justice, told the jury during opening statements Monday that Sidney started wearing the bag, which collects waste from his body, after Crohn's disease prompted the removal of large portions of his intestines in 1992.

The RV allows Sidney to travel without having to find a private, sanitary place to change the bag, which can fill unexpectedly. When Sidney tried to drive a car, Barrett said, the contents spilled all over him.

"It was an embarrassing and disgusting thing, and he didn't want that to happen again," Barrett said, adding that Sidney's condition requires "a constant vigil."

John Renke, Sidney's personal lawyer, said his client took shrapnel in the abdomen during the Vietnam war, but it is not medically certain if those injuries are linked to Sidney's Crohn's disease.

Renke described the bag as "a lifeline" that the homeowners association wanted to take away from his client. While deed restrictions forbid the parking of RVs in private dwellings, Sidney wants to be granted an exception.

Albert Lewis, the lawyer representing Beacon Woods East, said neighbors have complained about Sidney's RV, and that he lived in his house for four years without it. It is not a medical emergency, Lewis said, and Sidney is in no greater danger of getting an infection from a public bathroom than anyone else who has to use one.

And in 1997, Lewis said, Sidney was seen driving in a car. Moreover, Lewis said, there is a lot about a mile away where Sidney can park the Winnebago. He said evidence would show Sidney can improve his condition by timing his meals.

"There are some cases that are very clear, like a person building a ramp for a wheelchair," Lewis said outside the courtroom Monday. "This case is really pushing the envelope."

Sidney said he feels like "a fish out of water" in his neighborhood, which he says has turned hostile toward him as a result of his RV.

"I feel like I don't really know what I did to harm anybody," Sidney said, adding that allowing him to keep his RV wouldn't damage property values. "That's compassion. It's not like everybody's going to run out and get RVs. You need a good reason. Unfortunately, I have a good reason. I wish I didn't."

Ellen Hirsch de Haan, a St. Petersburg lawyer who is the chair of the Community Associations Institute, said she did not think the trial would have a broad-ranging impact on an association's ability to enforce deed restrictions. She added it could, however, set a precedent in similar cases.

_ Staff writer Christopher Goffard covers courts in west Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6236 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6236. His e-mail address is goffardsptimes.com.

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