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Tensions over couple's fountain run high

The Arbor Trace Homeowners Association objects to the landscaping. The Wilcoxes say they are being unfairly singled out.

Lee and Carol Wilcox have a little piece of serenity in their back yard.

A 3-foot-8, three-tier fountain gurgles. Pansies, petunias and daisies grace its base, while a nearby tree anchors the small haven.

What's wrong with this picture?

The Arbor Trace Homeowners Association doesn't like what it sees. In October, the association filed a lawsuit in Pinellas Circuit Court, seeking removal of the fountain, an arbor, latticework and a security camera on their property. What the couple thought was a formality has turned into the latest clash between a homeowners association and the will of homeowners.

"We're paying for the services," said Mrs. Wilcox, a 56-year-old art appreciation professor at the University of South Florida. "We're not paying for them to be cops around here."

According to court documents and letters, the association of the subdivision in unincorporated Pinellas County east of Largo denied their request for a fountain in March 2000.

A letter from the association says "if we allowed this fountain, we open the door for everyone in Arbor Trace to install a fountain and this would detract from the beauty of the complex."

"Excuse me?" Lee Wilcox said. "What does that have to do with the price of tea in China?"

He fired off a letter of his own and told the association he and his wife would place a fountain in the back yard of their three-bedroom townhome.

The fountain arrived in June. Since then, a flurry of legal papers has been flying back and forth between lawyers.

The association says the Wilcoxes are violating its rules, which state owners "may not cause or commit any material alterations in the exterior appearance of the lot or unit" without written approval.

"I don't think the remedy if you get turned down is to put it up anyway," said Steven Mezer, the association's attorney.

But the Wilcoxes say they are being treated differently from other residents who didn't seek approval for additions to their homes and weren't cited.

They point to 35 pictures they took of bird baths, screened porches and other additions that were installed without permission. The Wilcoxes say they have nothing against their neighbors, but they want to be afforded the same treatment other residents have received.

The association isn't buying those arguments. Mezer said the association has written about 50 citations concerning aesthetic infractions since 1989. Most of violations, including those the Wilcoxes photographed, have since been resolved, he said.

Still, the fountain gurgles on.

Nestled in a corner, it has a natural stone facade and cost about $1,000, including its electrical wiring.

It appears, well, harmless. Not so, says the association. The fountain will attract vermin. The fountain wastes water. The fountain is noisy.

"I can't even hear the fountain," said Mary Sills, who lives next door to the Wilcoxes.

The couple say they haven't noticed any squirrels, raccoons or opossums lapping at water in the fountain. As for wasting water, the fountain recirculates the estimated 10 gallons of water it uses.

So what gives?

The Wilcoxes say the association has it in for them.

Lee Wilcox, 59, may have created some enemies after he served as the president of the board for 18 months before resigning in August 1999 because he has Crohn's disease.

That's not the case, Mezer said.

"Nobody is out to get him. This is strictly enforcing the documents as written," he said.

Both sides say they have tried to resolve the issue. The Wilcoxes rejected an offer by the association to allow residents to make the final decision because they fear few people in the 33-unit subdivision would vote. They also don't want residents to vote on a matter that concerns only one fountain and not additions to homes throughout the subdivision, Mrs. Wilcox said.

So the flurry of legal papers is likely to continue.

Mezer said his client plans to repeat its original offer.

And the Wilcoxes plan to fight for what they think is right.

"We will never give up," Mrs. Wilcox said. "It's not a fountain anymore. This is a matter of a right to privacy and enjoyment of our home."