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Pasco code enforcement tactic zeroes in on blight

Pasco County cited this business, Home Discount Depot on Hicks Road in Hudson, for multiple violations under its stepped up code enforcement effort known as "high-return enforcement.'' The owner shut down the business and cleaned up the property rather than seek the proper count permits to operate legally.  Courtesy Pasco County
Pasco County cited this business, Home Discount Depot on Hicks Road in Hudson, for multiple violations under its stepped up code enforcement effort known as "high-return enforcement.'' The owner shut down the business and cleaned up the property rather than seek the proper count permits to operate legally. Courtesy Pasco County
Published May 8, 2018

NEW PORT RICHEY — The tents, blue tarp, stacks of pallets, barbed wire and general junky look at the side of Hicks Road in Hudson are gone.

The business, called Home Discount Depot, popped up in August 2017, with an illegal sign and without proper zoning permits.

"This purported to be a retail hardware store,'' said Kristi Sims, senior assistant county attorney for Pasco County. "It's not there anymore.''

Neither are the dilapidated buildings that had been the USA Flea Market on U.S. 19 near Bayonet Point nor the ramshackle trailer homes at the Lazy Breeze Mobile Home and RV Park outside Dade City.

Gone.

They are some of the high-profile cases handled by Pasco County since it created its "high-return enforcement'' strategy a year ago. The tactic targets the owners of blighted structures or repeat violators of the county codes that are intended to preserve the public's health, safety and welfare.

Sims shared details of the program with county commissioners last week as part of a pitch to add personnel, including a certified building official dedicated exclusively to high-return enforcement. Commissioners embraced the idea, but a final decision won't come until they adopt a budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

"I think this is really important to get rid of all these slums and blighted structures,'' said Commissioner Kathryn Starkey.

"This is a priority,'' agreed Commission Chairman Mike Wells Jr.

Essentially, the strategy involves staff from the county attorney's office, code enforcement, and the Sheriff's Office determining appropriate targets. The county then sends demand letters to property owners or uses court injunctions and nuisance lawsuits to resolve cases. It happens more quickly than the standard practice of issuing warnings, then citations and filing administrative complaints.

Over the past year, the county received more than 16,500 code enforcement complaints. They can range from a property having unkempt lawn or broken fence, to someone parking a boat or unlicensed vehicle in their driveway for too long. More visible, particularly along the county's commercial corridors, are businesses with illegal signs or long-vacant properties attracting vagrants, illegal dumpers or criminal activity.

"Our goal is compliance,'' said Sims. "Our goal is not to eradicate a business (or) eradicate a use.''

In the case of Home Discount Depot, the county mailed a notice in August detailing the violations. The owner scheduled a September meeting with Pasco's planning staff to go over the necessary requirements to make his business legal, but failed to show up for the session. An officer returning to the site in October found the business had disappeared and the property had cleaned up.

They aren't all resolved that simply.

Of the cases deemed worthy of high-return enforcement, the county determined 185 buildings were blighted or damaged beyond repair. Owners knocked down 63 of their structures. That is what happened at USA Flea Market. But the county demolished 55 other buildings and put liens on the properties, hoping to recoup its costs when the properties are sold. Forty-three demolition cases are pending.

Among other highlights:

• The county obtained a temporary injunction against the owner of a business operating illegally as a automobile sales lot in violation of the zoning law. The county will seek a permanent injunction during a trial scheduled for this summer. The owner, the county said, had a history of code violations at multiple properties for more than a decade.

• The county filed five lawsuits in 2017 that resulted in owners removing more than 8,500 illegally stored tires. The Pasco Mosquito Control District identified the targets, saying the mosquito-breeding grounds posed a public health threat because of the Zika virus. Four of the owners removed the tires before the cases went to trial.

• A shrimp processing facility, located in a flood zone, had significant building and fire code violations. It was vacated and demolished.

• Following Hurricane Irma, the county focused on illegal or so-called non-conforming pole signs that pre-dated the regulations requiring new businesses to install low-to-the-ground monument signs. Ten owners removed the signs or converted them to monuments, and 16 others signed agreements to do likewise. Forty-six others repaired the existing signs.

That information reignited a debate among commissioners on the merits of the county's sign rules. Commissioner Jack Mariano said new businesses on U.S. 19 should be allowed elevated signs on poles, but Starkey argued the visual clutter meant passersby couldn't differentiate one store from another.

"No one is proud of how (U.S.) 19 looks,'' said Starkey.

The sign debate might be irrelevant to new customers, suggested County Administrator Dan Biles, who moved to Pasco County a year ago.

He pointed out that he found businesses through internet searches for customer reviews and driving directions via his smart phone, not storefront signs.

Reach C.T. Bowen at ctbowen@tampabay.com or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2

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