When he was running for office, Pasco County Commissioner Mike Moore heard a recurring theme: Do something about the blight.
The county, like many other Tampa Bay communities, suffered from the recession, and voters told Moore they wanted something done about neglected buildings.
But a proposed ordinance that would set minimum standards for maintaining commercial buildings is stirring controversy in at least one community – Land O’ Lakes.
About 50 Land O’ Lakes’ business owners and residents met on Aug. 19 with Moore and Assistant County Attorney Kristi Sims to air out their concerns about what they see as government overreach.
“This just feels like more cotton-pickin government, and I’m tired of that,” said Russell Adams, owner of Russell Adams Realty Inc.
The ordinance came up during a recent workshop where Pasco County commissioners met publicly to discuss the 2016 fiscal year budget. A public hearing and a vote by commissioners on the ordinance will be scheduled in the future.
The ordinance is similar to one adopted in Hillsborough County nearly six years ago, and mirrors codes currently applied to residences. It also reflects the best-practice standards recommended by the International Property Maintenance Code.
County code currently defines a blighted structure and criteria for ordering an owner to tear it down unless repairs are done. Or, the county can tear down structures and place liens on properties.
What’s new about the proposed ordinance is that it introduces citations and fines for failure to maintain commercial structures to public safety standards. Examples include weather-tight windows and exterior doors, properly anchored awnings, and peeling or flaking paint. After 30 days, buildings with boarded up windows or doors must be repaired, or fines will be levied.
“Ninety percent of the proposed ordinance is safety-related,” said Sims. “Ten percent is aesthetics-related.”
Current code allows a maximum of $500 per violation plus costs. Jail time, not to exceed 60 days, also can be imposed, or both a fine and jail can be levied.
The process can be lengthy and includes warning notices prior to issuing citations. There also is an appeals process.
According to Moore, the ordinance is intended to fill in gaps in the county’s code enforcement toolbox.
Moore is pushing for additional money in the 2016 budget to hire more code enforcement officers. An initial suggestion of four new hires is now down to two, but an expanded staff would begin to address code enforcement issues along major corridors such as U.S. 41, U.S. 19 and possibly U.S. 301.
Fines imposed on property owners on these state-maintained roadways, however, would go to the state, not the county.
Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco, who came to the meeting to give a crime update, said the ordinance could be an additional tool for his deputies in clearing abandoned buildings, which attract criminal activity. He cited U.S. 19 as an example.
“We’re constantly going back,” he said. “You arrest them, and somebody takes their spot. We need this tool to get the blighted areas in U.S. 19. It’s not a (U.S.) 41 issue. It’s a county ordinance.”
Moore also reassured those at the meeting that the measure would be countywide and not solely focused on Land O’ Lakes.
“Everybody’s business looks great to me,” he said.
Moore said area Realtors were among those who asked for assistance in ridding blight on the county’s major corridors including U.S. 41.
“I have people in the real estate business who have trouble selling their properties,” he said. “They think this (ordinance) will help.”
He also cited a petition maintained by the Land O’ Lakes Beautification Effort, which on Facebook gathered nearly 600 signatures. The petition, addressed to Moore and Pasco County Code Enforcement, seeks tree plantings and a cleanup of blight from the intersection of U.S. 41 and State Road 54 up to the community of Connerton.
The list on the group’s Facebook page includes Land O’ Lakes’ residents as well as a few from Lutz. Some on the list are “anonymous.”
The petition rankled many at the meeting. They said it was not representative of Land O’ Lakes residents or business owners. When asked, no one at the meeting raised a hand to show they had signed the petition.
People at the meeting were local residents and many were long-time business owners, said Casie Holloway of the family-owned Holloway’s Farm Supply. She organized the meeting.
“We are a tight community,” she said. “Many of us have been here forever. This road is steeped in history.”
Preserving history, and also holding on to their businesses, was a major concern. Many expressed fear that if a fire or hurricane destroyed their businesses, the county would hinder rebuilding, and impose current building codes.
That would either be too costly or impossible to meet, they said.
Maryann Bishop of Bishop Construction said she dealt with rebuilding issues after a fire “and went through this with the county for three years.”
Others also expressed dismay with similar county experiences.
Sims and Moore explained that those were building code issues unrelated to the proposed new code enforcement rules. But no one seemed swayed.
Some said they saw signs of rebirth along U.S. 41, citing the recent purchase of Land O’ Lakes Plaza by Circle K. The fuel and convenience store chain plans to build a new store.
“Land O’ Lakes Boulevard is coming back,” said Harry Wright, owner of Hungry Harry’s Family Bar-B-Que. The meeting took place under a tent on his property.
He said other developers in coming months could begin buying up vacant properties for redevelopment.
“Ya’ll (should) maybe look at taking it a little slower…I think we could naturally work out of it,” Wright said.
Published August 26, 2015