Ditch diplomacy
After code officers warn homeowners they must unclog a creek, tempers rise. Then a new tack using tact is tried. 
Article Courtesy of the St. Petersburg Times

Published February 26, 2003 

PINELLAS PARK -- The gathering of neighbors at Sherry O'Dell's home Saturday morning was not a social event. Instead, it was a last chance to resolve a dispute with the city that has been brewing since December, when code officers descended on the neighborhood. 

Code officers had wanted the homeowners to clean the drainage ditch behind their homes. The homeowners resisted, saying they needed time and guidance to complete an expensive task. 

At first glance, the situation looks like a simple argument between code enforcement and 22 homeowners in the Pinebrook Estates subdivision in northwest Pinellas Park. But the saga has wider implications. 

Who is responsible for keeping clean the commonly owned lakes, ponds, creeks and drainage ditches in Pinellas Park? With more than 100 of them in the city, the issue is sure to arise more and more often. City officials are struggling to find a uniform solution. 

The Pinebrook saga began last year when Bob Jilek, president of the homeowners association, asked the city's help in cleaning out a pond that connects to the ditch. Jilek said the overgrowth was causing flooding elsewhere in Pinebrook Estates. 

The city spent about $53,000 to clear out the 11/2-acre pond late last year. But officials could not clean up a connected ditch because it was on private property, with parts of it owned by each of the 22 homeowners. 

All of which meant the homeowners had to pay to clean the ditch -- estimated between $2,000 and $3,000 each -- or clear it themselves. But rather than sending out notices and giving people a chance to do the work, Pinellas Park sent out its code officers shortly before Christmas. 

On Dec. 18, the officers tacked notices to 22 homeowners' doors, telling them they had until Dec. 31 to get the work done or they would be cited. 

The homeowners objected, saying they were given no warning. They wanted instructions about what, if anything, needed to be cut down or removed. Clear-cutting the ditch, they said, would reduce property values. They said the code officers were rude and threatening and lied to them. 

For their part, the code officers and the police sergeant who oversees them said the homeowners were verbally abusive and lied to them. 

Two days before the homeowners were scheduled to go in front of the Code Enforcement Board, they met with City Council. 

Council members turned the matter over to interim City Manager Mike Gustafson, who came out Saturday with several city staff members to try reaching an amicable agreement. The city also dismissed the code complaints against the residents. 

"This is a new day," Gustafson told the residents. "We're going to work with you. This took a long time to get this way. It's not going to be resolved in a week and we know that. As long as people are working on it, that's what we're looking for." 

Code enforcement should never have been the first group called in, Gustafson said. A member of the city's building department should have come out and told folks what needed to be done and worked with them, he said. Code should have been a last resort. 

"We hope that doesn't happen again," Gustafson said. "A very good lesson to learn." 

Although the Pinebrook issue may be settled for the time being -- homeowners have to keep the ditch clean forever more -- it does not solve the potentially larger problem of commonly owned ditches, ponds and lakes that must be maintained because they're part of the city's drainage system. 

One idea is an ordinance that would allow the city to come onto private property to keep the lakes or ponds clean. The idea is to have the folks who own the body of water agree to pay the city a fee each month so that no tax money is spent on improving private property. In return for the fee, the city would maintain the ditch or pond. 

Another variation would have the residents who benefit from the drainage pay to maintain the ditch or pond even if they own no part of it.