Lakeland’s seven-member Code Enforcement Board convenes the fourth Tuesday of each month to assess repeat violations of municipal codes and ordinances lodged against land owners by city code enforcement officers.
The board’s most recent meeting worked through a 35-page agenda that addressed 133 violations, including 52 cases where fines – generally $30 to $50 a day — were to be imposed, 50 cases where compliance fostered dismissal, 17 where paid fines resolved the matter and four new complaints during a three-hour series of administrative hearings in City Hall.
Those violations span codes and ordinances related to housing, overgrowth, open storage, care of premises, zoning, disabled/abandoned vehicles, signage and minimum maintenance standards for commercial buildings.
In the grand scheme of things, the hearings are tempests in teapots but for those who are called before the board, which convened with the minimum quorum of four members, the violations, mandated abatements and fines are hardly quibbles. Not resolving violations can lead to expensive penalties, tax liabilities and litigation.
Of particular interest, especially to Dixieland residents, was LCE 20-00501, a two-year-old citation lodged against Ina Ruth Price of 114 W. Patterson St. for allowing overgrown hedges to obstruct the view of the many drivers who use a one-way alley to exit the small parking lot aside the U.S. Post Office on South Florida Avenue.
Lakeland Code Enforcement Officer Daniel Sheets said the original violation was issued Jan. 16, 2020, with Price notified again to remedy the obstruction in December and daily $50 fines accruing since.
The hedge is “about two-and-a-half feet taller than it should be at the corner” and must either be trimmed or about 14 feet completely removed, he said.
Noting Price was not in attendance despite notification to appear, Sheets said the “owner has been contacted several times. She has refused to cut her hedge. It is becoming a public health hazard.”
He recommended the board issue an abatement order to hire a contractor to trim the hedge or remove enough to provide a clear view of West Patterson Street.
“We’re just asking for compliance, whatever that takes,” Sheets said.
Lakeland Traffic Engineer Tess Schwartz said “the shrubs need to be trimmed down to, I believe by code, 30 inches — basically drivers’ eye-level so people can see oncoming vehicles. Whether they’re trimmed or removed, that needs to be kept clear.”
Board member Tom Gaige asked, “Who decides if they need to be trimmed or removed?” Would the contractor have that discretion? he asked.
Assistant City Attorney Jerrod Simpson said the order must clearly identify the abatement. “If the code board is going to order an abatement, then the abatement can only abate the violation, we can’t abate further,” he said.
Simpson said once the hedge is trimmed or removed, even by a contractor, the daily $50 fines being levied against Price since last month “would stop.” If accrued fines aren’t paid, the city’s equalization board could add it to her property tax bill, he said.
Price, who is in her 80s, has a history of engagement with city code enforcement with 20 citations documented since 1991. The hedge — and her resistance to trimming it — has been discussed at Historic Dixieland Neighborhood Association meetings and on social media.
Price did not attend the hearing, nor respond to phone calls at a number listed in her name or knocks on the door, but several of her Dixieland neighbors were there and spoke after waiting two hours and 12 minutes for the board to get to LCE 20-00501.
“We live in this community and I don’t think one person can create this type of danger. I think there have been accidents there,” said Connie Haynes, a member of the city of Lakeland’s beautification committee.
The city made the alley between West Patterson and West Park streets one-way because of safety concerns “with big signs and it is still a problem,” she said. “You literally have to put your car out there. We’d love to go to the post office and be able to look and ride safely out.”
“I can attest to the danger of that intersection — the issue is total invisibility,” Lawrence Howell said. “I would simply caution the city against taking the hedge down to proper height because that may alleviate the problem, but won’t do away with it. Put it further back. Any amount taken back would be helpful. Take it back enough to make sure you don’t have to come back and do it again.”
Ultimately, that’s what the board opted to do.
The hedge was trimmed as of Monday.
The hedge row may be a tempest in a teapot, but in Dixieland, residents see the abatement order as a long-sought victory.
“This has been going on for years,” Dixieland Neighborhood Association Secretary Jason Hagerman said. “Lots of people use that alley to get in and out of the post office. Now that intersection is going to be safer.”
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