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Illegal all along, gates may go

When Steve Hatadis and his family went house-hunting three years ago, they wanted a home in Palm Harbor with a pool and a water view.

The first house they saw had an enclosed pool and backed up to a 6.5-acre stormwater pond known as Whisper Lake. The family bought the home on Sweetgum Court in the Forest Grove subdivision off County Road 1 and have enjoyed waterfront living ever since.

The U-shaped pond is home to wildlife that includes parrots, egrets, geese and turtles. The area around the pond also is a great place to walk the family's dachshund, Dolly, and to take guests after a cookout.

"You can't put a price on it," said Hatadis, 49. "We all put our shoes on and take at least two laps around the lake, just to work off dinner and chat. It's a ritual here."

But that could end soon.

The Pinellas County Highway Department has told Hatadis and about other 30 residents around Whisper Lake their access to the pond and surrounding area must be cut off.

The county owns the pond and is required by the Southwest Florida Water Management District to secure the area with a 6-foot-high, chain-link fence for public safety.

The county has had a fence around the pond for at least 20 years, but many residents have installed unauthorized gates. Some gates have been there since the subdivision opened in 1985. Other residents, like Hatadis, have landscaped their backyards around their gates, with steps, bricks and lava rocks leading to the fence.

"About 75 percent of the people around the lake have a gate," said Hatadis' neighbor, Ronald Pepin-Donat, 66. "It's nothing new. It's nothing radical. It's been quiet and serene for a long time."

That lasted until lakefront resident Chris Rogers asked for county permission to install a gate in the fence. Researching his request, Pinellas officials realized the state required the fence because some areas around the pond have a steep slope.

So the county said no gates were allowed.

"At that point, I said, "If I can't do it, why can everyone else?' " said Rogers, 55, who lives across the pond in the Whisper Lake subdivision. "I said, you need to treat everybody equal."

Because of Rogers' request, the county sent residents a Feb. 7 letter saying it was going to take down their gates March 15. Only county maintenance crews would be allowed on the pond.

Hatadis said, "I was furious. They can't do this without even asking us first. All because one guy can't have a gate, he will spoil it for everyone."

If Rogers had simply installed a gate like everyone else, there would have been no problem, Hatadis said.

But Rogers said installing a gate on a county fence without permission is tantamount to destroying public property.

"Because they are criminals, I should be a criminal?" Rogers said. "No, I'm not that way. And it is a crime to destroy public property."

Rogers knew he needed to ask permission because he is a retired site plan reviewer for the county's development review services department. He said he had asked twice to install a gate.

The first time was in the mid 1980s when he wanted a gate so he could help maintain the area behind his back yard. When he was denied, he just let it go, he said, until he started noticing more and more people walking their dogs and strolling around the lake.

Last year, he placed his second request "just to see if the rules are still the same," Rogers said.

"They can't selectively enforce the laws," Rogers said. "That's illegal."

He said he was bothered by neighbors walking behind his back yard. Their dogs usually incite his dog Prancer to start barking. Sometimes, he catches residents waving as they look into his property.

"That's a disturbance to me," Rogers said.

The bottom line, he said, is that he is not going to back down.

"They need to take down their illegal gates," Rogers said. "A logical person can't fault someone for wanting everyone to be treated the same."

With Rogers' complaint, the county is in tough place, said Sue Bartlett, a Pinellas highway field operations manager. Residents got away with installing gates because no one brought it to the county's attention until now, she said.

One one hand, Pinellas officials want residents to have as much access as possible to county property for passive recreation, she said. But, on the other hand, they can't overlook the state's requirement.

"We haven't found a win-win here, but we are still open to one if we can find one," Bartlett said.

Residents are proposing that they sign forms releasing the county from any liability and install locks on the gates.

"We just want to walk our dog or take a walk around the lake," Pepin-Donat said. "It's very pretty, and they want to stop that. That's ridiculous. There is a lot more important things going on in the world than this."

The gate controversy has caused some hard feelings.

Rogers said someone slashed the tires on two of his family's vehicles about two weeks ago. Rogers has since installed a security camera to monitor his vehicles.

"It's really unfortunate that adults can't disagree on something without someone taking vindictive action," Rogers said.

Pepin-Donat and Hatadis collected 38 signatures on a petition asking the county to reconsider. Residents have known all along that it was a county fence in their back yards, but no one thought there would be any harm in installing a gate, Pepin-Donat said.

"The deed has been done for 20 years," Pepin-Donat said.

For now, the county will hold off on taking down the gates to do more research and explore possible compromises, Bartlett said.

"You want to do the right thing, but sometimes, it's hard to tell what the right thing is," Bartlett said.

_ Ed Quioco can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or quiocosptimes.com.

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