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"Let us die in peace.” Residents protest grill removal at On Top of the World

The retirement community told some they must remove their grills. But one group of neighbors marinated on it and isn’t going down without a fight.

CLEARWATER — Salvatore Betti, 72, just wants to enjoy his grill.

The now-retired fire inspector from Ohio moved to the Bohemia building of On Top of the World with his wife five years ago. They paid over $10,000 more to buy a condo on the ground floor at the 55+ community, just so that they could get a patio area to put out a Nexgrill four-burner grill. It was worth it. Three or four times a week, they grill vegetables, burgers, chicken and hot dogs.

“We had a grill all our married life, and that’s been 47 years,” said Pasqualina Betti, 71.

Now that dream is at stake.

Last week, On Top of the World’s property management company, Parkway Maintenance and Management Pinellas, LLC., left undated, unsigned notices on the resident’s doors following an inspection from the city of Clearwater’s fire marshal.

“The fire department notated that our grill is in violation of the National Fire Protection Code and that the cooking device (charcoal, LP gas, electric or otherwise) therefore must be removed permanently,” the notice states.

That code states grills must not be used within 10 feet of any structures. But even though the residents typically move their grills 10 feet away from their buildings when cooking, the notice still states that residents have to get rid of their devices altogether, Betti said.

“They call this On Top of the World,” he said, after a lunch of grilled steak. “I call this ‘the end of the world.’”

Betti and his fellow Bohemia residents asked for more information, but did not hear back from On Top of the World. A Times reporter left two voicemails and sent two emails, but did not receive a response from the company.

So, Betti organized a protest at 3 p.m. today. Some of the signs he may wave at drivers on Belcher Road:

“Don’t take away our grills.”

“On Top of the World is grilling out seniors.”

“Save our grills and let us die in peace.”

Betti posted on Nextdoor to attract protesters, but he already has the support of his neighbors, who gather for a daily outdoor happy hour.

The Bohemia building gang hosts a backyard cookout twice a year. After Hurricane Irma caused residents to lose power for four days, the residents on the ground floor used their grills to prepare meals for their neighbors. And throughout the numbing isolation of the pandemic, grills have been a socialization savior.

“A lot of us are immobile and pretty much restricted to our own condos,” Betti said. “Those of us who have grills do so to avoid the restaurants."

“We sit on the deck, we laugh, we joke, we tell stories of the past ... It means a lot to us just to sit outside with our neighbors and laugh," said Max Freitas, 77. “Why take away what’s remaining of our lives?”

Resident Jutta Lane, 80, added, “You think you lived in Russia."

James Warman, the city of Clearwater’s fire marshal, explained that the fire code states "that no hibachi grills or other similar devices for cooking, heating or other purposes shall be kindled or maintained on balconies under overhanging portions, or within 10 feet of any structure.”

“Under the fire code, as long as they’re 10 feet away from any portion of the structure, then they would comply,” Warman said.

“The management out there is taking the step to say, ‘we don’t want anything out there.’”

Betti and his neighbors bought stones to extend their patios an extra few feet so their grills can be permanently perched 10 feet from the building. But they still haven’t heard back from On Top of the World.

“We haven’t had the opportunity to comply. It does not seem right,” said building president Doug Mlodzinski, 73, who added onto his patio to give extra space for his Weber Spirit II outdoor grill. “This is relatively new, $400, and I’d rather not get rid of it.”

The notice follows news of a grill fire at the Ocala On Top of the World location, said Paula Schelling, 75, who works for the On Top of the World newspaper. She said not all 93 buildings have received notices, but the management company threatened to fine residents and remove their grills if the notice wasn’t obeyed.

Schelling lives on Jamaican Street next to the Bettis. She pointed out that Kenneth Colen, chairman of On Top of the World, wrote a column about grill safety tips in the November 2020 newspaper. It included the information that the grill in Ocala was underneath the roof overhang and caused damage to an entire porch areas before stating “grills should be at least 10 feet away from any structure while being operated.” But it did not mention the notice demanding permanent grill removal, Schelling said.

“It doesn’t seem like these people are talking to each other," she said.

“It’s kind of like one little bad seed and everyone has to suffer because of it."

Schelling hopes that the protest will catch the attention of management. She’s already prepared some signs, including one with the praying hands emoji that reads “Help save our grills!!!”

“This isn’t just our building,” she said. “This involves 1,000 grills perhaps.”

“We’re not really asking for a lot," Betti said with a laugh. “We’re just asking to keep what we have.”

Paula Schelling, 75, shows her neighbors one of the signs she mocked up ahead of the protest at On Top of the World. She said the management company threatened to fine residents and remove their grills.
Paula Schelling, 75, shows her neighbors one of the signs she mocked up ahead of the protest at On Top of the World. She said the management company threatened to fine residents and remove their grills. [ GABRIELLE CALISE | Times ]