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Coronavirus Tampa Bay: Cities and counties relax code enforcement during crisis

St. Petersburg and Pinellas officials said they stopped issuing liens and condemnations, and are prioritizing major code violations.

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As the coronavirus crisis grew, Peter Nolan turned to his recreational vehicle.

He parked it in the driveway of his Riviera Bay home in St. Petersburg. He figured it was a place he could use to self-isolate, or a member of his family or neighborhood could self-isolate, in the event that someone contracted the virus.

On March 18, Nolan was slapped with a code violation, and a $120 citation followed. The camper shouldn’t have been parked there, according to the citation. City code officials said in an email that Nolan has been cited five times since 2016, and that a supervisor felt it being parked in the driveway “was not directly related to an immediate need.”

“I’m doing something positive for my family and potentially my community, and here you are fining me," Nolan, 41, a disabled Marine veteran, told the Tampa Bay Times.

But this week, deep into the coronavirus crisis, that parked RV would not have earned Nolan a ticket. Instead, St. Petersburg, Tampa and Pinellas County are prioritizing code violations that create life safety issues and taking a more relaxed posture on minor issues because of the pandemic and economic slowdown.

In St. Petersburg, that means things like peeling paint issues, mild overgrowth or recreational vehicles in driveways may be documented and addressed later, if the property owner doesn’t resolve the issues on their own, said Neighborhood Affairs Administrator Rob Gerdes.

“There’s significant concern about what’s happening to the workforce and the economy," Gerdes said. "So for the moment, we’re really just monitoring smaller issues and trying not to implement any financial damage to anyone in the short term right now.”

Gerdes said Nolan, who expressed his displeasure on Facebook with the RV citation, was not the reason for the city’s temporary codes relaxation.

Within Pinellas county’s jurisdiction, property owners may have up to 60 days to address minor infractions or long-term issues, like a shed built too close to a property line, according to two county officials, Building and Development Review Services Director Blake Lyon and Jude Reazin, the county’s code enforcement division manager. That’s up from seven, or in some cases, 30 days, they said.

“More routine cases," Reazin said.

Tampa, too, is prioritizing safety and emergency issues, said Ocea Wynn, the city’s administrator of neighborhood and community affairs. She said the city is "sensitive to the fact that people’s lives have changed, their livelihoods have changed.”

The issues those governments will still enforce strictly are major safety hazards, like unsecured vacant structures, a collapsed wall or roof, or backed-up raw sewage or a major infestation.

Hillsborough County officials, though, made clear it’s business as usual for code enforcement.

“We’re not going to let people get away with it just because we’re all wrapped up in uncertainty in this craziness," said Jon-Paul Lavandeira, Hillsborough’s code enforcement executive manager. "It’s not going to turn into a jungle, there’s still law and order. ... We’re not letting anything slip through the cracks.

“Anything we can do to get the word out that county code enforcement hasn’t changed during all this craziness,” he said.

Hillsborough County officials did say they will begin limiting interior inspections to matters of life safety starting April 1. Exterior inspections will continue like normal in Hillsborough.

Tampa, St. Petersrburg and Pinellas county also said they have limited interior inspections to major safety hazards. They said they don’t anticipate having to conduct many inspections inside while the virus crisis rages. St. Petersburg inspectors can wear protective suits, plus gloves and masks if they must go inside. Pinellas County workers also have masks and safety goggles.

With code enforcement hearings suspended and court operations limited throughout the Tampa Bay area, enforcement is a challenge. For now, that means no new liens will be issued.

Pinellas County officials said they have all but stopped condemning property. Most condemnations, they said, are due to a lack of utilities, but Duke Energy and the county utility have been flexible with late payments during the crisis. Condemnations spawned by serious building damage are still being evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

St. Petersburg has also stopped issuing new condemnation orders, the exception being emergency demolition of structures that are in imminent danger of collapsing.

St. Petersburg officials said at this point, they’re not forgiving previous citations.

Nolan said he doesn’t want to be forgiven. For him, he said, it wasn’t about the money.

He said he tried to explain to the code enforcement officer why it was parked there and that the vehicle would be there until the end of the crisis.

“And he said ‘if that’s the case, you’re going to pay the fine,'" Nolan recalled the officer saying.

“What, during this time?” Nolan replied.

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