MANATEE — Abandoned homes in a small area of Bayshore Gardens have been targets of an arsonist who has set more than a dozen fires in the past 18 months, some within an hour of each other, local officials say.
Foreclosures and the struggling economy have already hurt this community. Residents talk of squatters who have moved into abandoned homes and teenagers setting up camps. County officials speak of their struggles with myriad bank records to find who owns mortgages repackaged and sold numerous times.
But the most evident sign of the problems are those abandoned and now burned out homes.
At a meeting called by Commissioner Robin DiSabatino at the Bayshore Recreation Center on Thursday night, residents pleaded with county officials to do something to help save their neighborhood.
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Residents from the neighborhood and surrounding communities said the county’s codes aren’t strong enough to deal with the issues in their aging communities, and that they want something written that will help them deal with transitioning mobile home parks, abandoned vehicles, unkempt yards and abandoned homes.
County Administrator Ed Hunzeker told residents that the county is in the process of rewriting its comprehensive plan and land development codes, and asked the residents to continue to share their ideas with commissioners and county staff.
Tim Norwood, who owns property in Bayshore Gardens, said the burned and abandoned structures stand out in the neighborhood, making it impossible to attract families who want to buy the houses that are for sale — the kind of families that could help bring the neighborhood back up to its former quality.
“We can’t get rid of them,” Norwood said, referring to the burned houses. “If I clean it out, am I breaking the law?”
County officials discouraged residents from going into or near the structures.
Cedar Hammock Fire Marshal Jeff Hoyle told the residents that fire officials are working with the sheriff’s office to solve a string of arsons that have plagued the neighborhood for 18 months. In that time the department has investigated 12 related fires in a 1.5-square-mile area.
“Everything seems to be the same type of situation,” Hoyle said. “The state fire marshal is coordinating with the sheriff’s office.”
Hoyle said whenever there is a fire at an abandoned home in Bayshore Gardens, the sheriff’s office, fire department and fire marshal’s office respond.
They are asking the residents of Bayshore Gardens to call the sheriff’s office whenever they notice any type of suspicious activity.
“Anytime they see anyone going on vacant properties, they should report that,” Hoyle said. “If they see someone walking down the street that they don’t know, call the sheriff’s department.”
Hoyle said the fire marshal and the sheriff’s office are considering several different options for catching whoever is setting fires and that the more information they can collect in the neighborhood, the better able they will be to solve the crimes.
In the meantime, John Barnott, the county’s director of building and development services, said the county will try to convince the banks or property owner to tear down the homes and sell the lots.
Bayshore Gardens, built as a deed-restricted community in the late 1950s, has fallen victim to blight since those deed restrictions expired.
Foreclosures have made those problems even worse, as homes are neglected and yards are overgrown with weeds. To make matters worse, residents say squatters have moved into the abandoned homes that do not have electricity or running water.
County officials gathered problems addressed from the residents and promised to follow-up on each of their complaints and concerns.