Dog could cost owners their house
The homeowner's association has filed a foreclosure suit, saying the dog
needs a leash. The owner says his isn't the only one going without it.

Article Courtesy St. Petersburg Times
Published August 3, 2003

TARPON SPRINGS - In the four years that he's lived in the River Watch subdivision, Robert J. Wirth Jr. has never put his black Labrador Cole on a leash during their daily walks.

"He's never been a dog I had to put on the leash," Wirth, 46, says of his 80-pound pet.

It is a practice that, in the long run, has put the home of Wirth and his wife, Sandra L. Blaker, in legal jeopardy.

After repeated written warnings, a fine and a lien placed against their house, Wirth and Blaker now face a foreclosure suit from the River Watch Homeowner's Association.

The suit, filed in April, seeks to foreclose on a lien placed against the home by the association. The lien results from a $1,000 fine imposed by the association against the couple.

And the fine was imposed because, the suit contends, Wirth violated a River Watch deed restriction that requires "a dog must be kept on a leash at all times when outside."

If the amount owed on the lien, plus interest, attorney's fees and costs, is not paid, then the association asks a court to order the home be sold, and the proceeds applied to what it is owed.

It is a dispute being hashed out in court pleadings. Telephone calls last week to attorneys for both sides were not returned. On Saturday, the president of the association declined to discuss the case without talking to the group's attorney first. Asked whether the association tried to resolve the problem without going to court, association president Fred Englebrecht said, "Of course."

Wirth himself initially called the Times to discuss the case but declined further comment after talking to his lawyer.

The suit contends that Wirth has violated the neighborhood's deed restrictions by "continually walking the dog in the community" without a leash. It said Wirth and Blaker have refused the pay the fine assessed by the association. In a telephone interview, Wirth said that, with Cole, he doesn't need a leash.

"He's the most gentle, loving dog you've ever met," he said. "There's never been any problem."

Wirth said he is a plumber by trade, though he is not working now. He and his wife moved to River Watch from Maryland in 1999. She bought the house on Riveredge Drive, which Wirth said is titled in her name only for unspecified "personal financial reasons." The home is assessed for tax purposes at $198,400, though the county property appraiser estimates that comparable homes sell for about $313,000.

This is not the first time that Wirth and the homeowners association have clashed, he said. He has complained about the maintenance of the picnic tables in a neighborhood park and said he has challenged the governance of the homeowners association's board.

Wirth said he has no fear that the association will win the lawsuit. That's because he contends that others in the neighborhood also walk their dogs without leashes - he's even videotaped them - and they're not being sued.

"I've witnessed a number of others," he said. "I can't see how in the world there can be such disparate treatment. How can everybody else in the neighborhood be allowed to do what they're suing us for, trying to take our house for? It doesn't make sense."

Ideally, Wirth said, he and his wife would like to leave River Watch. They've bought a house in St. Augustine, but they're renting it out.

"We can't go because we can't sell this house because we have a lien on it," he said.