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Man tangled in Web, Oldsmar codes

Published Sep. 27, 2005

At the heart of the conflict are zoning codes that predate the Web.

To Steve Richardson, the 24-inch computer server in the garage of his rental home in Bayside Meadows is not a business.

He said it merely bounces e-mail to his private investigative firm in Lutz and sends Internet users to his thoroughbred horse-racing Web site.

But city officials and the Oldsmar Code Enforcement Board have a different opinion.

To them, Richardson's computer server means he has been running a business out of the garage of the house he rents to a tenant. Last week, the code enforcement board unanimously found him in violation of Oldsmar's zoning code and operating a business without a city occupational license.

The ruling was the city's first attempt at using zoning codes written before the advent of the Web to regulate Internet businesses in residential neighborhoods.

It was a tough pill to swallow for Richardson, who said he would move the server, sell the house and stay far away from the city.

"I felt like it was a persecution," Richardson said. "At one time, I was going to really fight this because in my heart I feel that I don't have a business there. But why fight them? If they don't want me here, I'll leave."

The board gave Richardson until Dec. 7 to move the server from the garage. After then, he will be fined $50 a day. Richardson said the server will be removed as soon as possible.

"Once that's done, you don't have to worry about Stephen Richardson," he told the volunteer board. "I'm out of here."

City Attorney Tom Trask explained at the hearing that residents must have a home occupational license to operate a business out of their homes. Those licenses can be issued only to the resident who lives at the address.

"It is our position that it is a home occupation and (Richardson) can't get a home occupational license because he doesn't live there," Trask said.

Richardson argued that he was not operating a business out of the garage and therefore did not need an Oldsmar occupational license. He said all the data flowing through the utility lines running into the garage is bounced to other locations almost immediately by the computer server.

"I will move the server, but I don't think I'm guilty of having a business there," Richardson said.

Richardson said he bought the house years ago for his son. They decided to place a server in the garage because the two planned to start an Internet business.

When his son got married and moved away, Richardson decided to put the house up for rent and keep the server in the garage so he could use it for his other businesses.

Ironically, the city's strongest proof that Richardson was violating the zoning code was a letter he wrote to the city in response to the charges. In the letter, Richardson compares the server to telephone company key boxes, power company transformers and cable company boxes.

"The Oldsmar location is simply a remote data switching and processing location," Richardson wrote in the letter. "Approximately once every few weeks, a technician checks the equipment and makes any necessary upgrades or equipment modifications."

Trask urged the board to pay close attention to Richardson's defense.

"You really need to look at this letter," Trask said. "It's good evidence. It really proves he has a business there."

Richardson said the server is mainly used for communications by the investigators of his Lutz-based firm, Andrew Michael Investigations, which specializes in nursing home abuse cases. Richardson, a former North Carolina police detective, hired an attorney to help him fight the charges but the attorney was unable to attend Thursday's hearing.

"They found me in violation and I don't like that," he said. "I don't think I violated anything. I'm an investigator and I don't make a habit of going around breaking the law."

Richardson said the board did not understand the Internet and what it means to run a business. The Oldsmar location does not store files, have any employees or take calls from customers, he pointed out.

"The Internet is the new thing," he said. "Nobody knows where it's heading but everybody is pushing it and Oldsmar had an Internet running through it, according to them, and they said "Get out of here. You're in violation, pal.' "

_ Ed Quioco can be reached at (727) 445-4183 or at