Dress Code For Schools Draws Heat

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BROOKSVILLE – Members of the Hernando County School Board may have a lawsuit on their hands if a unified dress policy passes without an “opt-out” policy for parents who don’t want their children to participate.

A day after board members voiced general approval for a proposed districtwide “uniform code” for the 2008-09 school year at a workshop Tuesday – which will require students at the majority of the district’s schools to adhere to general guidelines such as neutral solid-color pants, shirts or shorts and polo-style shirts – at least one local parent is threatening legal action.

Hernando Beach resident Larry Scott, a member of the School Advisory Council at Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics, said he does not agree with the policy of forcing children to conform to “someone else’s idea of proper clothing.”

He said he thinks such a measure intrudes on parents’ rights to decide what’s appropriate for their children, and inhibits students’ freedom of expression.

“The family unit is the oldest family structure that society knows of, and there’s a reason it’s endured,” he said. “They’re intruding on the proper duty of the parent.”

While the issue must still pass an official vote at a future school board meeting, the move marks the first time some of Hernando County’s schools have implemented specific dress guidelines.

Those that already have board-approved “uniform codes” include Brooksville, Chocachatti, Moton, Pine Grove, Spring Hill and Suncoast elementary schools, the elementary grades at Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics, and Parrott Middle School.

Those with uniform codes seeking approval are the middle school grades at Challenger, all grades at Explorer K-8 and J.D. Floyd K-8, Deltona, Eastside and Westside elementary schools and Fox Chapel, Parrott and West Hernando middle schools, all of which currently do not require strict dress guidelines.

Springstead High School also has future dress guidelines in the works.

But the right to an equal education is guaranteed by the state constitution, regardless of dress, said Scott, who has one child at Challenger and another at Nature Coast Technical High School.

Since the counties to the north and south of Hernando do not have unified dress policies, any “arbitrary barrier” to a child’s attendance at school would have to be defended in court, Scott said.

“If I have to file suit, there would be several grounds I do this on, not just one,” he said, pointing toward students where a uniform may be against their religious beliefs or other personal standards.

“The more you take choices away from children and force conformity, the more you diminish their creativity and individuality, which are qualities the world really needs right now,” Scott added. “We need good minds that think outside the box.”

However, he said he would be content with the policy if the district creates an “opt-out” clause, allowing parents to sign a form stating that their child will not participate in the uniform policy.

He said his daughter would be OK with being part of a small minority of children not participating in the dress policy.

“She’s OK with it. She wants to wear what she chooses, and in the (style) and color that she chooses,” Scott said. “She’s a smart kid and capable of making those choices.”

Currently, all schools have dress codes in their student code of conduct, most of which primarily outline decency standards such as hemline length.

Administrators at the workshop agreed that a more uniform code would help eliminate distractions and keep the focus on academics.

Some parents agree.

“I tend to be a little biased because I have a son who hasn’t experienced middle school yet,” said Brooksville resident Mary Scaglione, whose child is currently in fifth grade at Challenger. “He’s been in uniforms his entire school career, so this will be no different.”

Her son previously attended a private school where he was required to stick to a red, white or blue shirt, while the current dress policy for elementary school grades at Challenger has allowed him to wear any color polo shirt he chooses.

“I’m sure it’s going to be difficult for those children who have had the freedom, if you will, of (adhering to) a dress code, but it will probably be a little easier on the ones going into sixth grade.”

For the most part, the dress guidelines require solid-color slacks, skirts, Capri (pants) or shorts, with solid-color collared shirts.

However, rules vary by school, with some schools requiring specific colors. Each code has been previously approved by each school’s SAC committee.

A date has not yet been set for final school board approval, but Scott said he’ll be watching.

“If they don’t create an opt-out provision, I will be testing it,” he said. “It would be good if the school board considered what I’m pointing out here, and looked at other counties with opt-out provisions and avoided (potential) expensive court costs.”

School board attorney Paul Carland was not available for comment at press time.

Reporter Linnea Brown can be reached at 352-544-5289 or lbrown@hernandotoday.com.

Office Manager Wants To Bring ‘Fresh Blood’ To Fire Board

SPRING HILL – A 28-year-old accounting office manager says she is ready to help the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District fight for its independence.

So Amy Brosnan has filed to run for one of the fire board’s three open seats – the one currently held by Robert Giammarco, who has said he believes the district won’t be able to break its connection to the county.

But Brosnan said her bid “isn’t about running against (Giammarco).”

“It’s about running for something I believe in and the community should believe in as well,” she said. “I believe in the people of Spring Hill, and that this fire department is right for them.”

Born in Freeport, N.Y., Brosnan moved with her family to Spring Hill at the age of six. She graduated from Central High School in 1996 and earned an associates degree from the University of South Florida. Grandfathers on either side of the family served as volunteer chiefs back in New York, Brosnan said. She says she makes up for a lack of firefighting experience with budgeting skills gleaned from her time at Jobi Accounting and Tax Services in Spring Hill.

“We’ll see if we can save taxpayers money and still keep the elite services they’re used to,” Brosnan said.

Brosnan said she grew up in a house on Roble Avenue in Spring Hill and has lived there for the last two years or so. The house is still owned by her parents, Cathy and Paul Brosnan, who moved to Weeki Wachee about three years ago. Amy Brosnan said she lived with them in Weeki Wachee for a year when they first moved.

Paul Brosnan, like his daughter Amy, frequents Spring Hill fire board meetings and has been an outspoken advocate for independence and critic of the county.

The referendum that will give Spring Hill residents the chance to decide if the district should continue to be a county-dependent entity, or strike out on its own with only state oversight, is to go before voters Election Day, Nov. 4.

Giammarco was appointed by the county commission in May of last year when it was discovered that then-commissioner Margaret Perreira’s term ended in 2006 and that there should have been an election the previous November. Giammarco has angered his colleagues on the board as well as firefighters and residents and has been accused of being a “gopher” for the county.

He has been particularly attentive to the district’s finances, and critics have said he’s done so to a point that could compromise public safety. Giammarco has refuted those claims, saying there are ways to save tax dollars.

Reached Monday, Giammarco said he was surprised to hear that Brosnan planned to run but welcomed the addition of another voice that could, he said, bring in “a breath of fresh air.”

Two other seats, held by commissioners Charles Raborn and George Biro, also are up for grabs this year. No one had filed to run for either seat as of Monday afternoon.

The qualifying deadline is May 19.

Reporter Tony Marrero can be reached at 352-544-5286 or lmarrero@hernandotoday.com.

The Legacy Of Michael Stegner

SPRING HILL –
SPRING HILL – Like so many people before him, one day in Michael Stegner’s life forever altered his reputation.

It just happened to be his last.

Up until April 13, 2006, Stegner was just another sheriff’s deputy and, unless they crossed the law, he was just another cop in a squad car to the public.

But a year ago today, Stegner died off-duty when he crashed his department-issued car on Spring Hill Drive while driving drunk.

One day. One bad choice.

But there were also 10,215 days in Stegner’s life before that fateful night (his 28th birthday was the following Wednesday).

How did he spend those?

To get an idea, a Hernando Today reporter spent three hours talking with his parents, his family and friends.

The discussion obviously drew some tears, but there was far more laughter, hugs and good-natured ribbing as they conjured up the man who went by Mike, Mikey and Steggy.

Perhaps the best example of who Stegner was lies in the fact that he is in the center of every picture, surrounded by his friends.

“Mike wasn’t happy until everybody else was happy. That’s the truth,” said Louis Genovese, a patrol deputy and friend of Stegner’s from high school.

The fact he died with a blood-alcohol level twice the legal limit is not the proverbial elephant in the room. It’s acknowledged and lamented.

“But that shouldn’t be his legacy,” said property crimes Detective Dave Feger.

Before the question could be asked, Deputy Cliff Faulkingham chimed in:

“His legacy is turning friends into family.”

Tap dance lessons and football helmets

Stegner’s room has been kept largely the same, though he moved out years before his death.

It’s here that Mom, Peggy Stegner, begins to open up and introduce her son.

The closet is stuffed with pieces of Stegner’s life: His first communion suit, Boy Scout uniform, cap and gown, a fraternity paddle. He kept them here; Mom sees no reason to throw them away.

His formidable size even as a kid made him a natural fit for sports, but he also took jazz and tap dance class. One of his baseball coaches once yelled at him for practicing his steps in the outfield.

Stegner’s friends teased him for being a sissy until he wisely pointed out that all the girls were in the dance classes, too.

His younger sister, Michelle Eddy, can attest to her brother’s fierce competitive streak.

Even as a child, Stegner would “accidentally” tip over a board game if he was losing or peek at the Clue cards if Eddy went away for a minute.

That trait stuck with him for the rest of his life. He was so proud of his 60-inch flat-screen TV until his father outdid him with a 64-incher. Stegner excelled at video games, but even if he was crushing his opponent 75-0 in Madden he had to finish the game.

As Stegner and his sister grew up, Mom and Dad increasingly found themselves the nucleus of a growing circle of friends.

Much of that was by choice. They stayed heavily involved in their children’s lives and often volunteered to chaperone on what would be dubbed “field trips” to places like Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights.

More frequently, though, Stegner’s pals used their house as a place to hang out. Gradually, “Mr. and Mrs. Stegner” became simply Mom and Dad.

In a curious parallel to their adult lives, the frequent sleepovers entailed staying up late at night playing video games, listening to music and holding ping pong tourneys.

Gabe Fahey describes his childhood friend as a “big teddy bear.”

Anthony Smith remembers Stegner’s hilarious off-the-cuff remarks and facial expressions.

Smith was hard-pressed to point to any one thing he misses the most about Stegner.

“It was just him,” he said. “He would walk in the room and light it up.”

Stretching the apron strings

Stegner’s room is dominated by a large entertainment center on top of which sits a scuffed-up football helmet from his college days when he played defensive tackle. It’s flanked by two replica die-cast police cruisers emblazoned with the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office’s decal.

The room’s powder-blue walls still bear some of Stegner’s personal touches: a small metal sign warns “Beware of Attack Cop”; a cowboy hat autographed by big names in country music hangs from the bed post.

On the right side of the bed are four posed photos of Stegner on the gridiron wearing shoulder pads and a serious expression.

Here he is in Powell Middle School, Springstead High School (his senior year they won the championship), at Culvert-Stockton College in Missouri.

“He lost his baby face by this one,” Mom says wistfully.

Stegner had a slot at Florida State University, but he opted for the small Christian college because, “I want to play, not be a practice dummy.”

Dad, James Stegner, sees it a little differently. It was time for his son to dip his toes in the real world.

“I stretched those apron strings as far as they would go,” he said.

Between mother and son, Mom felt the pain of separation more keenly. She cried all 17 hours of the journey home, despite her husband’s best efforts to cheer her up.

She still remembers the twinge of betrayal when he called her up to chat then abruptly had to go because his friends were headed out the door.

“I thought, ‘He has friends?'” she said.

Stegner’s sister joined him later at the school and Stegner, ever protective, made it clear from day one to his football team that she was off limits.

“A girl couldn’t ask for a better brother,” Eddy said.

‘He was born to do the job’

When Stegner finished college, he earned certification through the police academy and sent in an application to the sheriff’s office. Growing up he had toyed briefly with becoming a pediatrician and even interned at a blood bank to get a feel for the medical field. But he came home one day and asked his Mom:

“How do you tell someone their child isn’t going to make it?”

That changed his mind about the profession, Peggy recalls.

His end goal was to be a detective like his father, but Jimmy asked him to hold off on that and try patrol for five years. Stegner began in District II, which covers a majority of Spring Hill.

Deputy Rob Santoro remembers Stegner as a rookie on the force.

“He was born to do the job,” he said. “He was an awesome cop.”

Stegner was a big guy with 22-inch arms. It wasn’t unusual for him to lift weights for an hour then head out for a three-mile run. Understandably, this often left him with a shortage of partners.

“You only worked out with Mike once,” said his longtime friend, an undercover detective who will be named “Bill” for this story.

Deputy Kenneth Devaney neatly sums it up: “He was a horse.”

A big size could hold an advantage for a deputy who wanted to defuse a situation with intimidation. But grandfather Eldon “Bud” Qualls never saw that side of Stegner.

“He was strong, but never a bully,” he said.

What Santoro witnessed was Stegner using his easy-going ways to establish a rapport with people.

“He was gifted in his ability to talk with people,” Santoro said.

Just as he was a magnet for friends in high school, Stegner’s charm built a new circle of companions at the sheriff’s office. By the time of his death, they were closer than brothers.

As Faulkingham said, a majority of the 25 people or so who came out to speak about Stegner didn’t know each other or the Stegner family before he joined the force.

That bond was forged during the odd hours that come along with a law enforcement schedule. Peggy Stegner was only too happy to accommodate her new sons, be it hot dogs and hamburgers at 2 a.m. or pancakes Sunday mornings.

Bill fell asleep in Stegner’s room so often that he was eventually given a permanent spot on the day bed in the computer room.

Off-duty, the deputies continued watching movies and playing video games. Devaney had the group in stitches when he told the story about a round of golf with Stegner.

Stegner swung his clubs like a baseball bat and consequently hit a house belonging to somebody that works in property and evidence at the sheriff’s office.

Stegner felt it was probably in his best interest to keep going.

“He said, ‘We don’t need this hole,'” Devaney said laughing, “and we just whizzed by with our hands over our faces.”

Karaoke was also popular. Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” and Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil went down to Georgia” were Stegner’s favorites.

If someone ran out of gas, one of the deputies would show up with a gallon jug. Everyone turned out for moving day.

“We were like brothers,” Devaney said.

Stegner’s end of watch

In the pre-dawn darkness of April 13, Stegner was returning home with some sandwiches he had just bought at the 7-Eleven on the corner of Spring Hill Drive and Kenlake Avenue.

He had spent much of the night drinking with some rookies on the force at a Hernando Beach restaurant. One of them accompanied him home and parked behind Stegner’s pickup, blocking it in. So Stegner opted for the Camry issued to him as a member of the selective enforcement unit. Besides, it was just a quick jaunt to the store.

At the “third” Pinehurst Drive, near Spring Hill Plaza, the light had just turned green and two tow trucks were picking up speed. Stegner crashed into the long, metal bed of the last tow truck. There were no skid marks. He died instantly.

It was standing room only at his funeral at St. Frances Cabrini, the largest church in Hernando County. The procession was so long that he hearse was pulling in the cemetery by the time the last car left the church parking lot.

The newspapers broke the news first.

Autopsy results revealed a blood-alcohol level of .223; Florida law presumes impairment at .08. The sheriff’s office kept mum, as per policy, until their investigation was closed.

All of the deputies and civilian friends with him that night said Stegner never appeared intoxicated that night. A Florida Highway Patrol trooper who knew Stegner coincidently saw him at the 7-Eleven, minutes before he died. That trooper also said Stegner did not seem drunk.

Looking back on a year

A year has not diminished the pain. Devaney thinks of his best bud four to five times a day and dreams about him several times a week.

The band of deputies planned to be the old guys at the office one day. They had a lengthy list of places they wanted to go together.

Bill still struggles with survivor’s guilt whenever they go to a sports game or tick another item off that list.

“I don’t know if I should feel happy. It’s what Mike would want I guess.” He pauses. “It’s bittersweet.”

Foster Parents Sued For Abuse

BROOKSVILLE – A year into their prison sentence for abusing their foster children, Arthur and Lori Allain are being sued by their former ward for a nine-figure sum.

John Joseph Edwards Jr. is also suing the Department of Children and Families’ private arm, claiming the agency’s caseworker failed to recognize the signs of neglect.

On Thursday, Edwards’ attorney, Gary Gossett, likened the conditions suffered by his client to a Nazi death camp. The lawsuit says Edwards underwent “physical and mental torture,” to include starvation, beatings, head shaving and “unlawful confinement.”

“You can’t just walk away from that kind of stuff,” Gossett said by phone from Sebring.

Gossett filed the lawsuit Monday and has yet to hear if the Allains have retained an attorney.

Arthur Allain is serving a 25-year prison sentence in Wakulla County in the Panhandle for aggravated child abuse; Lori Allain is serving the same sentence at Lowell Correctional Institute in Ocala.

A message left with a spokeswoman for Kids Central Inc. was not returned.

The Allains were arrested in 2004, when the sheriff’s office learned that DCF had taken custody of a malnourished girl. At 10 years old, the girl weighed only 29 pounds and her ribs were clearly visible.

Reports at the time said that her half-brother, Edwards, slipped food under her door two or three times a week. Further investigation revealed that she was locked in her room and had only a paint bucket as a toilet.

The Allains refuted the charges, saying the girl was already malnourished when they received her and that she had an eating disorder.

Her brother, who turned 18 in November, didn’t receive as much media attention, but Gossett said his treatment was just as shabby.

Without prior knowledge of the case, Gossett said he wouldn’t have believed Edwards when the victim first discussed what had happened to him.

“This is about basic human rights,” Gossett said.

As the Allains’ case wound its way through the judicial system, the spotlight also turned to DCF. Investigations were opened to determine how the abuse could have continued for so long if case workers were supposedly making monthly visits.

Gossett said the discovery portion leading up to a jury trial will determine when DCF turned over the case to Kids Central, the nonprofit company that serves the Fifth Judicial Circuit, which includes Hernando County.

The lawsuit specifically names Cathy Kelly as a caseworker who was allegedly negligent in her duties.

It’s Gossett’s hope that this lawsuit will bring attention to any other children in the foster care system who are undergoing similar treatment.

“The system failed at many levels,” he said.

Gossett would not specify how much the lawsuit seeks in damages, but stated it was a nine-figure sum.

Reporter Kyle Martin can be reached at 352-544-5271 or kmartin@hernandotoday.com.

Extreme Makeover For Old Brooksville Hospital

BROOKSVILLE – From sanitized medical wards to luxury retirement apartments – the transformation of the old Brooksville Regional Hospital continues.

People traveling down Ponce deLeon Boulevard will notice two bright yellow and black banners tied with string to two trees in the front of the once-bustling medical complex. Emblazoned on the banners are these words:

“The Grande Luxury Retirement Living, opening Fall 2008.”

Once completed, the complex will have 75 new apartments, geared toward independent living, dining and deli.

The banner boasts of The Grande’s central location near parks and medical services. Most of the construction has centered around the assisted living facility portion of the new complex, Bill Rain, with Metro Bay Development, said in a letter to Michael McHugh, director of the county’s office of business development. The first floor is already about 50 percent framed with rough plumbing completed, according to Rain.

County Commissioner Rose Rocco said she is encouraged by the speed of the construction. The sooner it gets done, the faster people will find jobs there and stimulate economic growth downtown, she said.

Rocco believes that once The Grande is open, it will spur other businesses to locate in the vicinity.

County commissioners sold the old Brooksville Regional Hospital last year for $1.1 million.

The investors planned to pump $10 million to $13 million to modernize the building. The facility will contain a mix of uses, including an assisted living facility, office and medical buildings and a restaurant. The developer plans to lease space in the building to county employees, alleviating some of the space crunch at the existing courthouse at 20 North Main St.

The contract includes a performance agreement that requires the buyer to provide regular updates on redevelopment of the downtown site and to provide security for one year’s estimated property taxes should the project not proceed in a timely manner.

The contract also states that 11,000 square feet of existing office and warehouse space will continue to be used by the county fire department and remain under county ownership, until the board determines it is no longer needed.

To assure the project moves forward, the investment group took out a performance bond, or line of credit, for $150,000 until the building is completed. County commissioners opted to sell the building rather than spend the estimated $15 million to $20 million it would cost to renovate the building and convert it into a new government center, which had been considered at one point.

For more information on the project and an artist’s rendering, visit www.thegrande.net

Reporter Michael D. Bates can be reached at 352-544-5290 or mbates@hernandotoday.com.

Extreme Makeover For Old Brooksville Hospital

BROOKSVILLE – From sanitized medical wards to luxury retirement apartments – the transformation of the old Brooksville Regional Hospital continues.

People traveling down Ponce deLeon Boulevard will notice two bright yellow and black banners tied with string to two trees in the front of the once-bustling medical complex. Emblazoned on the banners are these words:

“The Grande Luxury Retirement Living, opening Fall 2008.”

Once completed, the complex will have 75 new apartments, geared toward independent living, dining and deli.

The banner boasts of The Grande’s central location near parks and medical services. Most of the construction has centered around the assisted living facility portion of the new complex, Bill Rain, with Metro Bay Development, said in a letter to Michael McHugh, director of the county’s office of business development. The first floor is already about 50 percent framed with rough plumbing completed, according to Rain.

County Commissioner Rose Rocco said she is encouraged by the speed of the construction. The sooner it gets done, the faster people will find jobs there and stimulate economic growth downtown, she said.

Rocco believes that once The Grande is open, it will spur other businesses to locate in the vicinity.

County commissioners sold the old Brooksville Regional Hospital last year for $1.1 million.

The investors planned to pump $10 million to $13 million to modernize the building. The facility will contain a mix of uses, including an assisted living facility, office and medical buildings and a restaurant. The developer plans to lease space in the building to county employees, alleviating some of the space crunch at the existing courthouse at 20 North Main St.

The contract includes a performance agreement that requires the buyer to provide regular updates on redevelopment of the downtown site and to provide security for one year’s estimated property taxes should the project not proceed in a timely manner.

The contract also states that 11,000 square feet of existing office and warehouse space will continue to be used by the county fire department and remain under county ownership, until the board determines it is no longer needed.

To assure the project moves forward, the investment group took out a performance bond, or line of credit, for $150,000 until the building is completed. County commissioners opted to sell the building rather than spend the estimated $15 million to $20 million it would cost to renovate the building and convert it into a new government center, which had been considered at one point.

For more information on the project and an artist’s rendering, visit www.thegrande.net

Reporter Michael D. Bates can be reached at 352-544-5290 or mbates@hernandotoday.com.

Gas Still Reaching Record Levels

TAMPA – Gasoline prices have constantly been setting new records and this week will be no exception, according to AAA Auto Club South.

Crude oil inventories are rising and demand is down, but OPEC output for March is at its lowest point in five years, according to a AAA media release. As a result, retail fuel prices are expected to rise.

The average price for a gallon of regular gas in Florida is $3.38. That is 13 cents higher than it was March 1 and 60 cents higher than a year ago.

 

Blueberry Farmers, Neighbors Battle Over Use Of Air Cannons

HUDSON – If you talk to the residents of The Estates and nearby communities in Hudson, blueberry season is nothing short of a nightmare, with loud cannons firing off as often as every minute during the day to scare away birds threatening the crop.

If you talk to the blueberry farmers, the pressurized cannons are a necessary nuisance to protect their livelihood from the cedar waxwing, a migratory bird that swoops in each season and takes as much as a third of their harvest.

“They come in by the thousands, and they just devastate the crop,” farmer Robert Waldo of Bob’s Blueberry Farm said. “When they find it, they don’t want to leave. They come in such flocks that they make a cloud on the ground.”

Waldo, who has been in the business for 10 years, has an interest in nearly a dozen blueberry farms in Hernando and Pasco counties, including a 25-acre farm backing up to The Estates and a handful of other neighborhoods in this northwest Pasco community. He is at the front lines of a battle among blueberry farmers and their neighbors in Hudson, who are trying to outlaw the cannons in favor of a more peaceful deterrent.

The Pasco County attorney’s office, at the direction of the county commission, drafted an ordinance to outlaw propane-powered cannons that exceed certain noise limits at blueberry farms. Certain farms designated as protected by the Right to Farm Act were exempt.

The ordinance, which has been in the works for more than a year, was supposed to be considered during public hearings this month. The commissioners backed off after the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services informed the county attorney’s office they have no jurisdiction.

The propane cannons are considered fireworks, and a 2007 state law says counties can’t regulate fireworks more than the state does. That law was passed, in part, because of Pasco’s efforts to restrict the sale of fireworks.

The fight isn’t over.

County Commissioner Jack Mariano, who represents Hudson, said at a Tuesday county commission meeting he will continue to push the Legislature to regulate the use of propane cannons at blueberry farms. He has argued in the past there are other ways of deterring birds from the crop.

State Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, is trying to separate air cannons from the fireworks law so the county can regulate them. But the fireworks law is designed to protect farmers. In fact, the sale and purchase of fireworks is legal in Florida as long as the buyer signs an affidavit saying he or she will use the fireworks to scare birds from fields to protect their crops or fish hatcheries, or for another agricultural purpose.

County officials also plan to crack down on smaller blueberry farms. The county prohibits commercial farming on tracts smaller than 5 acres. Propane cannons are used at those farms as well.

Birds Can Destroy 30% Of Crop

Waldo said he pulled out the cannons during blueberry season in 2005 and 2007, when he was at his wit’s end with the cedar waxwing. He had tried many other methods with mixed success. When the blueberries are ripe – usually early April – the birds come in and peck, Waldo said.

“They don’t eat most of the fruit. They just peck. They’ll peck at every berry on the bush.”

Blueberry season in Florida lasts about two months. Residents complain they can’t tolerate the noise. Waldo said that is his only chance to harvest about 140,000 pounds of blueberries, which are shipped throughout the United States and all over the world.

The birds can destroy as much as 30 percent of that crop, Waldo said. Cedar waxwings also eat holly berries and mulberries.

‘No One Thing Is Working’

Waldo uses the cannons at his other blueberry farms, and he gets complaints from neighbors there, too, he said, but most of the other farms are in more rural areas. The Hudson farms are scattered among neighborhoods.

There are other ways of scaring away birds from the fields, Waldo said. The farmers use other kinds of noisemakers, such as bottle rockets, whistlers, buzzers, air horns and shotguns. Waldo also is testing a spray repellant.

“Air cannons are just part of the artillery,” he said. “No one thing is working. The problem is, it’s an experiment. We haven’t tried it on the bird. There’s no way to know if anything works except when the birds are here.”

Even when the methods work, the birds quickly get used to them.

“The birds become accustomed to everything in about three hours,” Waldo said. “They’ll watch and see if any harm comes. They’ll fly to the edge of the field, but they don’t leave.”

Neighbors have complained about the frequency of the noise – which varies from once an hour to once a minute – and the occasions when farmers forget to turn the air cannons off.

Waldo conceded he has forgotten a few times but said it is not intentional.

“We have one crop a year. That’s the only time we make any money. We have to protect our crop any way we can,” he said. “I am genuinely sorry these people are upset and disturbed. It’s aggravating to me. I have to stand next to the cannon. But people have their life savings in this. They’ve got a right to use their land.

“Anyone who lives in a deed-restricted area, they are the trespassers. If they want quiet and tranquility, they need to buy an island. The people on a little postage-stamp lot can’t control all the thousands of acres around them.”

Reporter Julia Ferrante can be reached at (813) 948-4220 or jferrante@tampatrib.com

This Store Is For The Birds

SPRING HILL Joe Carlino doesn’t own a collection of colorful macaws only to look at them.

To him, they have as much personality as any other domestic pet. He reached into one of the many cages at his store and went for the bird’s ankles.

“Hi, Phoenix,” he said. “I play with your feet.”

The green wing macaw bobbed her head, stuck her tongue out and playfully tried to bite his fingers.

A few minutes later, he got her to talk.

“Hi there,” she said over again.

Why do people spend more than $1,000 for a bird that is usually kept in a cage and not permitted to fly? The short answer is that there are a lot of people like Carlino, who also breeds and sells them for a living.

“They are talking birds,” he said, referring to various species of macaws. “You can have conversations with some of them. They make great pets.”

Bird owners must understand how much attention their pets require, Carlino warned. If one regularly interacts with the animal, the happier it will be.

“The key thing is to develop a one-on-one relationship with the bird,” he said. “If you have that, you’ll have a wonderful pet.”

In December, Carlino and his wife, Roseann, opened Quality Exotic Birds at 7349 Spring Hill Drive. In the front half of the store, customers can usually see canaries, African grays, cockatiels, macaw hybrids and other birds. On the shelves there are bird toys, perches, feed and other products for owners to use to keep their pets happy and occupied.

There are a variety of cages on display in the front and back, all of which are “bird safe” – which is to say they contain no paint or chemical products that could be harmful to the animal.

Smaller cages are best-suited for the canaries while the larger, wider cages are best for macaws and their exceptionally large wingspans.

Carlino does a lot more than sell products and offer grooming services. He also does more than invite potential bird owners to his store. He will often invite them to his house.

“If we’re selling birds to a first-time owner, we’ll open our home to them to show them how to hand feed them,” he said. “We want it to be a good experience for the bird owner.”

An American singing canary – which often is bought for children – usually cost about $70. Some macaws, like a green wing or a scarlet, can cost thousands.

A hyacinth macaw, which is all-blue, can cost almost $10,000.

“You’re buying longevity, Carlino said. “That’s why they are so expensive.”

Macaws can live for up to 100 years, but the average is more like 50 years. In the past, exotic birds were captured in their own habitat in South America or Australia and shipped across the world.

That devastated the bird population in some regions. Furthermore, many of the animals died during the transport. The business still continues, but most local dealers, like the Carlinos, breed their own birds.

The Carlinos are from New York and moved to Spring Hill from New Port Richey in 2005. Quality Exotic Birds is the only local place where people can buy medium to large birds, they said.

Joe Carlino has a 32-year-old photo of him at the former Parrott Jungle in Miami where his fascination with birds manifested into an obsession. The 6-foot-5-inch Italian had at least four multi-colored flying parrots perched on his arms and shoulders. He was looking directly at the camera sporting a wide smile.

“That’s where my dream came alive,” he said.

He and his wife are among the newest members of the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce. A ribbon-cutting ceremony is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Thursday, March 13.

The public are invited and refreshments will be served.

Reporter Tony Holt can be reached at 352-544-5283 or wholt@hernandotoday.com.

Biz at a glance:

Name of biz: Quality Exotic Birds

Owners: Joe and Roseann Carlino

What it is: Medium to large exotic bird retailer

Where it is: 7349 Spring Hill Drive

Get in touch: 352-835-4040

Local Pilot Missing In North Atlantic

BROOKSVILLE –

An international search is on for a veteran

Spring Hill pilot who went down Thursday morning in a

severe storm off the coast of Iceland.

Greg Frey, 66, was traveling from Rekyjavik to Scotland

in a Piper Cherokee single-engine plane when he made a

mayday call to report “severe icing on the plane’s

control surfaces,” according to a news release issued

Thursday from the United Kingdom Defense Ministry.

Frey (pronounced “Fry”) told traffic controllers that

he was “ditching” the plane about 100 miles south of

Iceland, the release states.

He was wearing a survival suit that could offer some

protection from the icy waters, according to the

release.

He also had a life raft aboard the plane, according to

Greg Frey Jr., Frey’s son who flew Thursday from

California to Spring Hill to be with family members

while awaiting updates on the search.

Frey had an emergency transponder that sent a distress

signal after the crash, which confirmed that the plane

was in the water, according to the defense ministry

release.

The Royal Air Force launched its Nimrod aircraft to

join the Iceland Coast Guard in the search. By Friday

evening, no trace of the plane, or Frey, had been

found.

“The weather conditions are very bad with heavy

thunderstorms and 20-foot swells,” a RAF spokesman said

in the release. “We always try to remain optimistic on

these occasions, but this is very much a race against

time to find the pilot. You have to be realistic as

well as hopeful.”

By Friday, family members had gathered at the Spring

Hill home that Frey shares with his wife Maureen,

waiting word from U.S. embassies and the Iceland Coast

Guard.

Among them was Frey Jr., who said the news that the

distress beacon sounded for more than an hour after the

crash is encouraging.

“That means he survived the impact,” Frey Jr. said.

“That’s giving us some hope.”

The search had been halted temporarily until dawn, Greg

Jr. said Friday afternoon.

The family has gotten calls from the American Consulate

and the American Red Cross. A spokesman for U.S. Rep.

Ginny Brown-Waite said Friday that the Brooksville

Republican was doing what she could to ensure the lines

of communication remained open.

Frey’s ultimate destination was Germany, where he

planned to deliver the Piper to its new owner. He works

for Globe Aero Ltd., a Lakeland-based firm that

specializes in ferrying planes throughout the world.

Frey, who’d worked for the company for about a year,

left Lakeland on Monday and headed up the east coast to

Bangor, Maine, Globe Aero president Phil Waldman said

Friday.

He then flew into Canada, across Greenland and on to

Iceland, where he ran into storm delays and spent three

days “waiting for the weather to move out of his way,”

Waldman said.

Frey took off Thursday and likely encountered that same

storm system, Waldman said. Ice on the wings slows an

airplane down, forcing the pilot to descend, he said.

Waldman acknowledged Friday afternoon that, nearly 36

hours after the crash, it would be “a miracle” if Frey

is found alive.

“The North Atlantic is not forgiving,” he said.

Waldman and others reached Friday described Frey as the

most competent of pilots, a man with a serious love for

flying and an easygoing personality.

He started flying at the age of 16, when he left a job

in a steel mill to pursue a career in commercial

aviation, Frey Jr. said.

He retired at age 60 after flying commercial planes for

34 years. But he kept flying, doing aerial photography

for a real estate company and working as a private

pilot for a real estate developer before taking the job

with Globe Aero, Frey Jr. said.

“It wasn’t a job, it was a passion,” he said. “It was

something he loved second to his family.”

Frey also is well-known in the local aviation

community.

He is a former board member of the Hernando County

Aviation and Airport Authority and an active member in

the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Hernando County

chapter.

Frey was instrumental in securing a hanger at the

county airport for the chapter, fellow EAA member

Bernie Berger said.

Berger described Frey as “an idea man.”

“He has an ability to get people together,” Berger

said.

Frey, who owns a single-engine Cessna, also works to

instill a love of flying in young people as an active

member of the Young Eagles program. He and other EAA

members recently made plans to visit local schools to

talk about the joys of aviation and the career

opportunities in the field, Berger said.

Greg and Maureen Frey moved to Spring Hill in 1981.

They have another son, Chris, and two daughters, Megan

and Lisa.

The couple would celebrate their 33rd wedding

anniversary on March 2 and Frey’s 67th birthday two

days later.

Frey Jr. said the family knew the possible perils of

crossing the ocean in a single engine plane.

“Everybody understood the risk, and we had confidence

in him,” he said, “but sometimes situations tend to be

out of our hands.”

Reporter Tony Marrero can be reached at 352-544-5286