BRANDON — To a group of homeowners in the Alafia Estates neighborhood, it's a path to paradise.
To the homeowner who lives next door, it's a road to perdition. Fed up with trash, drug parties and other trouble from an isolated trail to the water's edge, he slapped up a fence and blocked access.
By February, the battle was on. Petitions were circulated. Lawyers were contacted. A formal complaint was filed, and a counterpetition followed.
This week, a four-month dispute over a county right of way appears to be settled. The residents of this mobile home community will get their path back.
But it remains to be seen whether they will be comfortable with what had been a tranquil trek to the water.
For generations, the unpaved, unmaintained extension of South Kings Avenue had taken fishermen, swimmers and those who just wanted a beautiful backdrop for a few chapters of their book to the banks of an idyllic stretch of the Alafia River.
“It's a well-kept secret,” said Nick Plummer, a longtime resident. “When you see the land behind these houses, it's typical Florida from the 1800s.”
Rod Fisher, a bail bondsman, and his mother, Juanita Paedae, bought the property at 4238 Alafia Blvd. in 2000. While they knew their lot adjoined a public right of way, they weren't prepared for what they said were repeated problems associated with it.
“It was a nuisance,” Fisher said. “Before we occupied the property, that place was a hellhole down there. All they did was go down there and throw out junk and do drugs.”
He said the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office was called to the riverfront “once or twice a week” for a year.
Paedae estimated she and her son made 20 trips to the county dump, hauling refrigerators, washers, dryers and other trash left at the trail.
“We started cleaning it up and getting rid of the debris, and every time we'd go down there, there would just be a bigger stack.”
The final straw, the two said, was a series of car accidents at the L-shaped intersection of Kings Avenue and Alafia Boulevard, where drivers must make a right turn. Several cars crashed directly onto the Fisher property, including at least one vehicle that struck the mobile home.
In February, up went the fence. And a pair of signs: “Warning, Security Camera In Use” and “Private Property, No Trespassing.”The sight of the fence and the signs didn't sit well with Plummer.
“That river belongs to the people,” Plummer said. “The whole neighborhood used (the easement) for years. It's there for everybody's use. My kids learned to swim down there.” He filed a complaint with the county's code enforcement department Feb. 14.
As with many such spats, whether they involve a condo association, homeowners' covenants or a fenced-off trail, plat maps and surveys were examined, ordinances were analyzed and the county bureaucracy churned.
Residents collected 43 signatures on a petition to keep the easement open.
After a series of site visits, a county inspector concluded that “blocking this right of way without the authorization of (Hillsborough County) is not allowed,” and Fisher was informed about the violation.
Fisher then contacted the county's real estate department to petition to have the right of way vacated to him. While that petition was pending, any action on the fence issue was stalled.
Plummer felt he and his supporters were “getting the runaround” from the county, but code enforcement manager Jim Blinck says administrators were just going by the book.
“It's called due process, and it's slow. I hate to have to say that,” Blinck said.
At the end of May, Fisher was notified that the county was rejecting his request to vacate the right of way, based largely on objections by the public utilities department, the public works department and the planning commission.
The planning commission cited the county's comprehensive plan, which states, “The County shall not vacate dead-end roads on waterfronts and shall use these areas for passive open space, wherever feasible.”
With that petition settled, Blinck said Fisher will soon be receiving a formal notice of violation.
He's already removed the fence, although the no-trespassing signs remained up last week.
“Yeah, it will be opened back up,” Fisher said with resignation last week.
If they can overcome the animosity that springs from a neighborhood spat, residents of Alafia Estates will be able to enjoy their river view. That's important, said Sybil Cribbs, who runs a canoe business on the banks of the Alafia and has seen a number of public-access sites along the river closed over the years.
“I hope that man (Plummer) is successful, but who knows,” she said while the fate of the right of way was still being debated. “If they keep blocking off, and blocking off and blocking off, there's going to be nowhere that people can go to enjoy the river.” [email protected]