ST. PETERSBURG — One day in January, Dana Cremo was on her front porch hanging a vintage screen door when two city employees walked up.
"You can’t park on your driveway," they said.
"Why?" she asked. "Because somebody filed a complaint," they said.
Five days later, an investigator notified Dana and her husband, Larry, that they had violated city codes by adding a driveway to their home in the city’s Historic Old Northeast. They were cited even though city officials had approved their plans four different times. Even though the driveway doesn’t cut across a city right-of-way, as many other driveways on the same street do.
For eight months, the Cremos have been unable to park on their driveway without risk of a $500 a day fine. They will have to apply for an after-the-fact variance even though they’ve been told they probably won’t get it.
And if they don’t get it, they will be left with $15,000 worth of unusable driveway even though many of their neighbors have no problem with it and have remarked on how nice it looks.
What makes the Cremos’ predicament all the more baffling to them is that this is the same neighborhood where battles have raged over big new houses like the one going up right behind their 100-year-old home.
Says Larry Cremo: "I can’t understand why that doesn’t upset (the city) but somehow our little parking area does."
With its brick streets, grand trees and easy access to downtown, the Historic Old Northeast is one of St. Petersburg’s most sought after neighborhoods. The drive to preserve the area’s vintage charm is so strong that four local historic districts have been created within the larger one.
Dana Cremo grew up in the Old Northeast in a house built in 1920. It faces Beach Drive, on a quiet stretch of the street before it turns into a crowded row of restaurants, shops and towering condominiums.
The Cremos, who met while students at Northeast High, moved repeatedly during Larry’s decades as a pilot — first with the Air Force, then with Delta Airlines. But they always wanted to return to the old neighborhood. When he retired three years ago, they started an extensive renovation of the family home that included a proposed driveway on Beach Drive.
"Dana’s mother is 94 so it’s much easier for us to pull up right in front of the door," Larry Cremo says. "That’s one of the reasons we wanted the (driveway), for convenience."
There was a hitch. Zoning in the Old Northeast requires houses abutting an alley to have garages and driveways that face the alley, not the street. The idea is to avoid the garage-dominating look of suburban homes.
The Cremos’ architect, Jim Bedinghaus, checked with the city’s zoning department. Codes would not allow a driveway connected to Beach Drive without a variance, and a variance probably would not be granted, he was told. However, the Cremos could put a paved parking area in front as long as vehicles entered only by way of the alley next to their house.
Bedinghaus changed his drawings to show a small, semi-circular driveway accessed from the alley but not extending across city property to Beach Drive. At every stage including the final inspection, city staffers signed off on the renovations and modified driveway.
"My argument is that at no time during all this year-and-a-half approval process did they say, ‘You can’t build it,’" Larry Cremo says.
The Cremos estimate they spent $15,000 to $20,000 on pavers and extensive landscaping to shield the driveway from the street and pedestrians. But after they received the violation notice, they stopped using the driveway altogether for fear of being fined.
"Everybody who pulled up, pulled up there and we’d have to say ‘No, no you can’t park there,’" Dana Cremo says.
Her husband contacted the Historic Old Northeast Neighborhood Association (HONNA) to see if it would support an after-the-fact variance.
"We understand your frustration with what you consider to be unfair regulations," Robin Reed, chair of the association’s Planning and Preservation Committee, wrote to Cremo in an email. "However, in our opinion, front-loaded driveways and parking pads are characteristics of suburban communities that do not have the convenience of alleys for utilities and parking access. HONNA has traditionally opposed applications similar to yours."
For those reasons, Reed concluded, the association could not support a variance.
St. Petersburg’s zoning official, Jennifer Bryla, said the site plan for the Cremos’ renovations shows a driveway cutting across a city sidewalk to Beach Drive. Printed on the plan are the words: "front circular drive will require a variance." But the Cremos say the plan Bryla has is just the proposal that was shown to the zoning department. The revised plan, which was submitted to the city for approval, confined the driveway to their property.
"If we stopped short of Beach Drive we didn’t need (a variance)," Larry Cremo says.
Nonetheless, he submitted an application for a variance this week. It notes that more than half of the lots on Beach Drive and two similar streets have front driveways. It notes that since zoning regulations changed in 2007, 13 property owners on those streets have applied for driveway variances — and all 13 have been approved.
As required, the application includes the names and signatures of eight nearby property owners who have no objections to the Cremos’ variance request. The couple also has the signatures of dozens of other neighbors, and will present those at the Nov. 7 hearing before the Development Review Commission.
On that day, Larry Cremo plans to tell commissioners that he and his wife love the Old Northeast and feel that their renovations, including the driveway, totally fit in with the character of the neighborhood. He will say they did everything they could to comply with codes in renovating one of the historic houses in the Old Northeast.
The violation notice "really hurt my feelings," Dana Cremo says. "I’d been waiting so long to move home, and when we come home , we treated this 100-year-old house with tender loving care to make it beautiful again. And then this happens."
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate