Foreclosure looms over Tarpon Springs man who walked dog off leash
By Lorri Helfand, Times Staff Writer
In Print: Saturday, April 4, 2009
Robert Wirth Jr. may lose his house — all because of walking his dog in a deed-restricted community without a leash.
What seems like a relatively minor infraction has snowballed into a protracted court battle that he claims has cost him more than $100,000 in legal fees.
"We're running out of time because we're running out of money," said Wirth, 52, who works as a real estate broker.
It all started more than seven years ago because Wirth insisted on walking his black Labrador, Cole, regularly without a leash.
In January 2003, the River Watch Homeowners Association fined Wirth and his wife, Sandra L. Blaker, $1,000 for doing so. The couple didn't pay. So the association filed a lien and in April of that year foreclosed on their home to collect the debt. The case has dragged on for years.
Last year, a circuit judge ordered Wirth and his wife to pay the fine, plus interest, attorney fees and other costs or the house would be sold. Wirth now owes more than $40,000, he said.
He appealed in February 2008, but he's not sure when the case will be resolved.
"What's going to happen when I don't have money for food?" Wirth asked.
The market value of the home, purchased in 1999 is $380,000, according to property appraiser records. Wirth's wife, Blaker, owns the home.
Wirth remains adamant about his case and is not backing down.
The River Watch Homeowners Association said Wirth violated a deed restriction that said, "A dog must be kept on a leash at all times when outside."
He says the provision is too broad. But in court, Circuit Judge Bruce Boyer said his actions clearly violated River Watch deed restrictions. Boyer's final order said testimony indicated that Wirth "was the most flagrant and continual violator of the pet restriction within the community."
Wirth admits he still walks Cole without a leash.
In court, Wirth accused members of the homeowners association of not following the proper procedure in imposing the fine and made criminal allegations about that.
But the judge ruled that the association was authorized to impose the fines, by state statute and by governing documents.
Meanwhile, Wirth's frustration has escalated. He said that he would shoot and kill one of the board members if things don't go his way.
"I am not going to let them ruin me and my wife like this without standing up to them," Wirth said.
He argued that he has the right to do so under the state's Stand Your Ground Law, which basically says someone is justified in the use of deadly force to defend themselves if they believe they're in imminent danger.
Wirth's comments were reported to the Tarpon Springs police, which followed up. The agency said the threat didn't appear imminent, but that authorities would monitor the situation.
Homeowners association president Ed Zisman said Wirth has been "a very difficult person" to deal with because he continued to walk his dog without a leash even though he was repeatedly told not to do so.
He said that Cole is well behaved, but that not all dogs in the neighborhood are.
"If we make an exception for him then, we have to make an exception for everyone in River Watch," Zisman said.
Foreclosure cases like Wirth's are "unusual, but not unheard of, " said Gary W. Lyons, a Clearwater attorney whose specialties include real estate law.
Lyons is also aware of foreclosure proceedings that stemmed from painting homes the wrong colors or improper shingles on roofs.
Lyons said people rarely lose homes over deed restrictions because judges usually try to work with homeowners in these cases and give them multiple opportunities to keep their property.
While foreclosure seems extreme, sometimes it's the only way homeowners associations can enforce such restrictions, Lyons said.
"If they don't take steps to enforce deed restrictions," Lyons said. "They lose the ability to enforce them."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Lorri Helfand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
By the numbers
$1,000 Fine imposed by the homeowners association for walking a dog without a leash.
$40,000 + The fine plus interest, fees and other costs Wirth and Blaker were ordered to pay.
Market value of the couple's home.