Battle over truck heads to court

  A disabled man who says he needs his truck clashes with his homeowners group

By ROBERT FARLEY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 4, 2002 

PALM HARBOR -- A sport utility vehicle, okay. A Jeep, fine. But the Dodge Ram pickup truck parked outside Anthony Colecchia's townhouse has got to go. 
So says the Village of Somerset Woods homeowners association. 
Colecchia, 66, a retired New York City firefighter, said he has a disability that requires the truck. He had spinal surgery after a car accident in 1991 that left him with permanent mild paralysis in his legs. He needs the extra legroom of a pickup truck to prevent cramps in his legs and back, he said. The added seat height allows him to see the road better without uncomfortable twisting, he added. 
Prove it, the association countered. 
So Colecchia provided a letter from his doctor, who stated that Colecchia's "medical condition dictates special seating with customized legroom for his mobility and safety." 
The association's attorney, Steven Mezer, suggested Colecchia consider a Ford Explorer or a Jeep Grand Cherokee, both of which would provide added seat height and legroom but also would comply with the neighborhood's deed restrictions, which ban trucks. 
"My Dodge Ram King Cab suits me just fine," Colecchia said. 
Besides, he said, he didn't have the money for a new car. He paid $18,000 for the pickup truck. 
In March, after months of warnings, the Palm Harbor Somerset Village Association sued Colecchia in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court. 
In response, Colecchia filed a charge of discrimination in housing on the basis of handicap against the association with the county's Office of Human Rights. In mid December, the Pinellas County Commission authorized the county attorney's office to initiate litigation against the association on Colecchia's behalf. 
Colecchia said he understands the ban on commercial trucks in the residential neighborhood. 
"I don't want that, either," he said. "I don't want trucks with writing on the side and ladders hanging off it." 
But his truck is not used commercially, he said. He bought the pickup 21/2 years ago, he said, because he often suffered cramping in his legs and back after driving his Dodge Intrepid. 
A court hearing in early December was postponed to allow Colecchia's new attorney to get up to speed. Colecchia said he thought a deal was in the works. 
"We've got good reason at this point, and I don't say this loosely, to believe that this matter is going to be resolved," Oliver Melvin, compliance manager with the Pinellas County Office of Human Rights, said on Friday. But on Monday, Mezer said a deal wasn't likely. 
"It's going to court," he said. 
Colecchia said he is sure he will win. And once the case is finished, Colecchia said, he plans to countersue the association. 
"I want to teach them a lesson for going after someone when they should have left them alone," he said. 

                 A Times Editorial

                                         Ridiculous indeed
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 9, 2002 

Here we go again. Another homeowners association is hellbent on continuing to enforce a deed restriction that should have been changed or discarded long ago. 

This time it is the Village of Somerset Woods association in Palm Harbor, which is enforcing the community's no-trucks rule against 66-year-old resident Anthony Colecchia and his Dodge Ram pickup. 

Colecchia, a retired New York City firefighter, is partly disabled from a car accident and subsequent spinal surgery in the early '90s. He says his extended-cab pickup gives him the leg room and seat height he needs to drive without pain. The pickup is not a commercial truck; Colecchia uses it as his personal vehicle and parks it in his driveway. 

But that has led to a run-in with the homeowners association in the community of townhomes and villas. The deed restriction against trucks means no personal pickup trucks either, the association says. 

The group sent warnings to residents to let them know that they couldn't have pickups in their driveways. When the residents responded by parking their pickups on the shoulder of a nearby road, the association reported them to county government, which put no-parking signs along the road. 

In Colecchia's case, the association's attorney suggested that he trade in his pickup for a sport utility vehicle, such as a Ford Explorer. When Colecchia refused, the association sued him in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court. 

Now Colecchia has filed a complaint with the county's Office of Human Rights, alleging that the association is discriminating against him as a handicapped person, thereby violating state and federal housing laws. The county attorney's office will sue the association on Colecchia's behalf. 

Who will benefit from all this? In all likelihood, only the lawyers. The litigation will be expensive for the association and the county attorney's office (read: taxpayers). It will turn neighbor against neighbor in the Village of Somerset Woods. 

A far wiser course of action would have been to ask residents if they wanted to legally revise the deed restriction to be true to what was surely its original intent: preventing commercial trucks from parking in the neighborhood. Wording that bans trucks with commercial lettering, tool boxes and attached work equipment such as ladders is more specific and more appropriate now that many people use pickup trucks as personal transportation. 

By instead pursuing enforcement of a clearly outdated restriction, the association forces residents to ridiculous extremes like concealing their pickups from the association's truck police, and the group leaves itself open to charges of unfairness. 

An example: Sport utility vehicles apparently are legal -- the association president even has one. Yet SUVs, especially the big ones such as Suburbans and Expeditions, are considered trucks by many individuals and even automobile dealers. They are as heavy and powerful as pickups, and many of them have just as much cargo-hauling space. How can Somerset Woods allow one and not the other? 

Too many associations have forgotten that the purpose of deed restrictions is to protect property values, keep neighborhoods looking good and help neighbors live together in harmony. The restrictions might need to be updated from time to time. The association officers need to ask themselves frequently if their interpretations and enforcement are making their neighborhoods more desirable or less so.