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A child, a condo rule, a lawsuit

Little Steven Born couldn't go outside to toss a foam football, play hockey or float his toy boat on a pond.

Neighborhood rules, the condominium association said.

So midway through a childhood marked by playtime scoldings and indoor games, Steven and his family moved last year from Pine Ridge at Lake Tarpon Village I.

Now, while the 10-year-old pedals his bike through a new neighborhood, his playground battle rages on. Pinellas County commissioners voted this week to sue Pine Ridge for discrimination based on family status. Steven's parents, Mark and Kathy Born, also plan to file a separate suit in federal court.

"Their philosophy was children cause damage," Mark Born said in an interview at his new home in Palm Harbor. "They just didn't want him there."

The condo association, which denies the discrimination charges, says the no-playing mandate applies to everyone.

"All the rules that we have here, we have nothing that says children aren't allowed to do something," said condominium association president Mary Gamlin. "An adult couldn't do the same things."

The Borns filed a complaint with the county's Office of Human Rights in April 2003.

"We have been told that the only time that the children should be outside is to go from our house to the car, that the children were not allowed to play outside," the Borns wrote in the complaint.

When he did go outside, he had a two-way walkie talkie in case his parents needed to come "rescue him from grownups," said Kathy Born, 43.

An investigation by the Pinellas County Office of Human Rights concluded in July 2003 that Pine Ridge at Lake Tarpon Village I discriminated against the Borns based on their status as a family.

During the county's investigation, Pine Ridge representatives denied many of the Borns' allegations, including that children could only go outside from the condo to the car. The condo association turned down a county offer to settle the complaint by paying $5,000 to the county and $3,000 to the Borns and putting its staff through fair-housing training.

"When you move into a condo, you have to understand that there are rules and regulations and you have to follow them," Gamlin said.

Pine Ridge at Lake Tarpon Village I is in a cluster of residential developments in unincorporated northern Pinellas, and is not the only community that uses Pine Ridge in its name. It is not a 55-and-older community and thus cannot ban younger families, county officials say.

Before federal law changed in the late 1980s, Pine Ridge was restricted to 18 and over, Gamlin said. But after 15 years, everyone has accepted the presence of families in the neighborhood of 440 condominiums, which sell in the range of $90,000 to $120,000.

In 1993, a judge found Pine Ridge at Lake Tarpon Village I had violated fair housing laws by banning babies and small children who were not fully potty-trained from the swimming pool. The community had to pay Marlene and Jerome Leonard $1,500 and change its rules to ban anyone who was incontinent, not just children in diapers.

Every year the Pinellas County Office of Human Rights receives about 75 to 100 complaints of familial status discrimination. Most say landlords are attempting to enforce illegal curfews on youth, putting families with children in the back of a complex or keeping minors away from pools.

"It's an interesting phenomenon," said Leon Russell, director of the county's Office of Human Rights. "I think that in years past, Pinellas has been seen as a retirement place. You only need to look at the school population to see that is not the case. You can't be the (22nd) largest school district (in the nation) and a retirement mecca as well."

Mark and Kathy Born moved into an 1,100-square-foot condominium in 1993, while she was pregnant with Steven, their only child. The young parents had decided that Kathy would be a stay-at-home mom. It was a financial stretch, but worth it.

Pine Ridge was "a very nice place to live," said Mark Born, 44, who owns a building-inspection business. "Until he started walking and talking."

When Steven was about 6 years old, a maintenance man stopped him and told him he could not ride his bike on the complex's winding private roads, according to the Borns' complaint to the county. Another time, a resident pulled a van diagonally across the roadway, blocking Steven, and told him he couldn't be on the street with his bike without a parent.

The boy, who was not the only child in the neighborhood, was scolded for drawing with chalk on the sidewalk outside their home, the Borns say. The family had to take down a badminton net from the common area and received a written warning after Steven tried to play hockey in the street.

Steven, who is in the fifth grade at Brooker Creek Elementary School, was unhappy, often crying because he couldn't play outside. He couldn't invite friends over because they couldn't play outside. He played a lot of Game Boy video games alone.

Mark Born, who served on the condo association board for two years, said a board member told him that Pine Ridge wasn't a good place to raise a family and that he should move so his son could have a back yard to play in. But the Borns hoped to wait until Steven reached high school and they had saved enough to move out.

Finally, sick of finding somewhere else to be on weekends and during the summer, the Borns gave in. They sold their condo and last October moved into a three-bedroom house in Palm Harbor. Steven's mom now works part-time in the office at his school.

It's better now, Steven says, even though he has a longer bus ride in the morning.

"I used to play PlayStation and Game Boy every day," said the punchy redhead. "And now my friends have to beg me to play. Because I like to be outside."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Nora Koch can be reached at (727) 771-4304 or nkochsptimes.com.

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