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Watchful neighbors keep eye on community

Four women form task force to keep city informed of violations

POSTED: June 24, 2008 5:00 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA /The Times

Gloria Melancon of Our Neighborhood Task Force walks around the Ivey Terrace area, pointing out trash that litters the streets. Melancon wants the Planning and Appeals Board to initiate a rezoning of the neighborhood in order to keep out multi-family homes.

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Gloria Melancon knows just about every inch of her neighborhood.

Her head shaded from the sun by a straw hat, Melancon recited the facts she knows about the homes in her neighborhood as she walked by them on a recent afternoon.

"That house is owner-occupied. That one is owner-occupied. Somebody rents that one," Melancon said, pointing to multiple manicured lawns.

Yet only a few streets over, she pointed out overgrown grass, broken windows, washed-out driveways and cars parked on the sidewalk.

Some houses are so dilapidated that "the only thing you can do is tear it all down and start over," Melancon said.

On foot, Melancon neared the end of Hillcrest Avenue, and something started to smell. Ahead on the road, trash waited on the roadside for next week's pickup, but a dog, or some other curious critter, got there first. Neither the smell nor the litter seemed to affect Melancon.

"This is mild," she said as she stepped around it.

These problems surrounding low-income rental properties abandoned by their landlords are the reason Melancon and three of her neighbors in the central Gainesville neighborhood formed the Our Neighborhood Task Force to revive the area. The neighborhood stretches from Ridgewood Avenue to Ivey Terrace and is bordered by Bradford Street and Ridgewood Terrace.

The women formed the task force after attending planning board and City Council meetings in opposition to residential recovery programs in their neighborhood. The group homes, which had been found operating without the required special-use permits, were denied the chance to legally stay in the neighborhood after residents spoke in opposition.

At those meetings, the four neighbors discovered something that chilled them: Not even the city knew what was going on in their neighborhood.

"When we saw that not even the city knew about it, it shook us up. If they're not going to take care of us, we've got to be more involved," Melancon said.

The group homes issue, which flared up in the heat of last summer and still has not completely fizzled out, was only a symptom of the larger problem in the neighborhood, Melancon said.

"It's a symptom of people knowing or feeling, since nobody cared about a neighborhood, they could just come in and do anything," Melancon said. "That's what motivated us."

In the hopes of restoring their neighborhood, the women plan to ask the Planning and Appeals Board to vote to rezone the area, currently zoned Residential-II, back to the more single-family friendly Residential-I next month. Melancon said rezoning will help the neighborhood improve by placing restrictions on the homes that were built for one family but now house many.

The group has done its research. Sorting through planning maps and signed petitions, Melancon said that of the 80 properties in the neighborhood, 56 are occupied by renters. On Hillcrest Avenue alone 17 of 21 houses are rentals.

In Melancon's opinion, Hillcrest is the neighborhood's worst problem, but not because of the renters.
"I can't blame some of the people that live in these places, because if they try to get the owner to do anything, they could be thrown out or reported to I.C.E.," Melancon said while standing in the middle of Hillcrest Avenue. "A lot of them are Mexicans so they can't say anything; they're caught in the middle, they have to have a place to live and it's cheap. They have to keep their mouth shut."

Instead, the women of the task force have a problem with the people who get monthly checks from these renters. "That's the biggest problem: Landlords, or as we lovingly refer to them as ‘slumlords,'" Melancon said. "We want to get rid of the slumlords that don't take care of their property."

When they formed the task force, they divvied up the duties. Joan Alford of Crestview Terrace has a voice with a note of authority. When the group let the Planning and Appeals Board know its intentions at a May meeting, Alford was the mouthpiece.

At that time, Alford told the board that rezoning the neighborhood to the single-family residential zoning "would allow a greater opportunity for some badly needed improvements in this neighborhood."

Mary Jardine of Bradford Street is a former librarian and lobbyist. She has coordinated meetings with state legislators and has her way with the words of the women's presentations.

Cari Dobbins of Ivey Terrace brings a younger perspective to the group and helps with PowerPoint presentations.

Melancon is the researcher. "I like making sure the content is there," Melancon said.

Prior to forming the task force, the four women knew of each other because of other neighborhood issues and the petitions that circulated around those issues. They have not always had the same opinion, either.

"We got together and decided we want to work together on trying to improve our neighborhood," Melancon said. "It's time. We can't wait any longer."

The women, living at each of the four corners of the neighborhood, know their assigned deputy marshal, Gary Kansky, by his first name. They ought to because they call him often, reporting garbage in the streets, yard sale signs that overstay their welcome and grass that gets too tall.

Properties on Hillcrest and Ivey Terrace, streets with "For Rent" signs blooming in the yards and landlords nowhere to be found, are often the ones that prompt the women to call the marshal's office.
The task force made its first efforts at rezoning the neighborhood by sending a petition to all of the area's 59 property owners in February.

Under the city's zoning rules, there are multiple avenues to rezoning a neighborhood. Either 100 percent of property owners have to agree to it, or the Planning and Appeals Board or the City Council can initiate the rezoning, said Gainesville Planning Director Rusty Ligon.

And not all of the property owners support the rezoning. Only 25 property owners in the neighborhood responded to the mailed petitions. Three of them were against it and 33 did not respond at all.

One homeowner, who responded in opposition to the petition, wrote that the rezoning "could remove the flexibility for better options (for the neighborhood) in the future just to have older-looking homes for others to walk by and reminisce about days gone by."

"Many of these homes are not built to be functional with today's housing needs and expectations," the property owner wrote.

Not phased by the lack of positive responses and fortified by the positive ones, the group will make its plea to the Planning and Appeals Board on July 8.

Planning Board member Joe Diaz says dealing with the request will raise philosophical questions as to what role the government has in making decisions about private property.

In May, he told the group that he wanted to hear from people who oppose the rezoning as well as those who support it before he attempts to make a decision.

"We're being asked to rezone somebody's property that doesn't want their property rezoned," Diaz said. "It raises an interesting philosophical issue of what is the appropriate level of government decision-making, asking ‘where is the line?' I think this is going to be an interesting debate to that issue."



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