Man jailed for neglecting lawn: Don't do the crime if you can't do the time!

Forget California, Arizona, and even Jerusalem. For a lot of people, Florida is the promised land. Whether because of its famously mild climate, its extensive beaches, or its huge retirement communities, "Death's waiting room" has a reputation as the place to go when one tires of city living and harsh weather.

In this context, it's not all that surprising that Joseph Prudente, formerly of Holtsville, New York, decided to move there when he retired. What is surprising is that he ended up spending a night in the slammer recently after his finances soured and he neglected to care for his lawn.

How is this possible? Prudente lives in Beacon Woods, a wooded, planned community built around a golf course. He purchased a four bedroom house for $128,000 in 1998, and settled into a well-deserved retirement. However, as times got tougher, Prudente's stepdaughter moved in, along with her husband and two kids. Once again, tasked with supporting his family, Prudente found his pension getting stretched to the breaking point. Scrambling to keep food on the table and the mortgage paid up, he began neglecting the yard. Big mistake.

The Beacon Woods Civic Association, the community group that polices Prudente's neighborhood, noticed that his lawn was no longer measuring up to the standards set forth in their rule book, and began sending warning letters. Faced with a choice between paying the mortgage and fixing his sprinklers, Prudente chose to ignore the lawn situation and the letters. As the situation got worse, Beacon Woods proposed mediation and, ultimately, took the retiree to court. A judge ruled that he had 30 days to re-sod and get his sprinklers fixed.

When Prudente ignored this warning, the judge declared him in contempt of court and gave him another 30 days to comply. After a second failure to fix the lawn, Prudente saw the writing on the wall: he was going to have to go to jail. Rather than have his wife, daughter and grandchildren witness the spectacle of grandpa being dragged away in cuffs, he turned himself in.

Ultimately, the situation was resolved by the actions of a kind neighbor. Andy Law, a former resident of Beacon Woods, gathered helpers, supplies, and a sodding machine, and proceeded to fix the yard. The Pasco County Commissioner, Jack Mariano, joined in, and somebody else repaired the sprinkler. Neighbors contributed checks, planted flowers, and laid down mulch. The following morning, Prudente was released from jail.

The Beacon Woods Civic Association's President, Robert Ryan, responded to this public relations disaster with an open letter, in which he offered the lame response that "The association does not send people to jail. It is the homeowner who ignores our efforts to help people in hard economic times and leaves us no other option." He goes on to note that, after other people fixed the problem, "I went to court to attest to this fact and the judge lifted the complaint. Mr. Prudente was released immediately." Thus, although Mr. Ryan absolves his organization of responsibility for this situation and claims that it was out of his hands, he also notes that he was able to quickly secure Prudente's release after the lawn was fixed.

As a kid, I lived down the road from Reston, Virginia, a community notable for being the deathplace of Tennessee Ernie Ford, the only place outside of Africa to have a strain of Ebola virus named after it, and the first development in America to have neighborhood covenants. Although many of my friends used to complain about the endless rules that regulated everything from toys in the yard to heights of hedges, they also bragged about the sense of community that Reston had.

As times get harder and foreclosures become more and more common, it will be interesting to see if Civic Associations across the country will maintain their sense of community or will hide behind their massive rulebooks. Ultimately, the question is if neighborhoods are composed of people, or if they are merely a collection of rules and the occasional legal mandate.

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. His greatest nightmare is waking up in a row of "little boxes made of ticky-tack."
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