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County declares war on Lealman's junk cars

(ran West edition)

The soft, friendly approach didn't work, so county officials plan to come down hard on scofflaws who have failed to move their junk cars.

In the coming weeks, code enforcement officers will target 25 violators in an area three blocks by six blocks. Officers also will cite any other violations they see on the properties.

The goal is to rid the neighborhood of inoperable vehicles and to advise Lealman neighbors that the county is serious about cleaning up the community.

"We need to have code enforcement," said Frank Bowman, a senior community development specialist with the Pinellas County Planning Department. Bowman is one of the county employees charged with helping improve Lealman. "We can't revitalize without forcing some to do it."

The revitalization team of county employees and community volunteers must walk a fine line, Bowman said. With a helping hand, team members have been guiding folks to programs and aiding those who want to improve. But he said the team also must force improvements when necessary.

Said Ray Neri, president of the Lealman Community Association: "We've got to go for the cars. We've made a commitment in writing to these people (and) we've got to deliver on it. We've got to let some group know we're serious."

When the revitalization team formed a little more than two years ago, a survey of neighbors ranked junk cars high on a list of concerns.

But community leaders hesitated to call in a code enforcement sweep. Policing of properties had been so lax here that many residents probably thought there were no rules, team leaders said. A surprise sweep could anger neighbors and destroy the burgeoning revitalization effort.

In choosing a gentler approach, the revitalization team first decided to concentrate on junk cars. The worst area was bounded by 40th and 46th avenues N and 37th and 40th streets.

Letters informed residents of the rules and the county's intent to begin enforcement. Notices went in community newsletters. There were newspaper articles.

In the second week of February, county officials traveled the area. "In that six- by three-block area, we had 37 properties with inoperable vehicles, junk cars," Bowman said.

More letters were sent, and on Thursday county officials returned to the neighborhood.

"We reinspected all those properties," Bowman said. "Of those 37, we found 12 who had solved the problem.

"I guess I should be happy that 12 people complied. . . . We have to hope this momentum of positive change will grow."

But the small change has left county and community leaders with no choice but to get tough.

"We've been trying to spread as much honey as possible," Bowman said. Now, "those violators who have not complied . . . will be handed over to code enforcement."

And the real bad news for those folks, Bowman said, is that once code enforcement comes on the property to deal with the car, the officer will cite any other problems he spots.

Even in the event of multiple citations, a property owner can avoid a big penalty if he makes improvements. "The people who are getting slammed are repeat offenders," Bowman said.