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Despite viral video, Pinellas County is not ‘environmental Nazis’ banning backyard BBQs

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

If there is one thing about the Internet, it’s easy to find outrage.

Particularly outrage against the establishment.

Add a good YouTube video, and you have yourself something viral.

The latest bit of manufactured outrage over our “unjust system” comes from right here in Florida, specifically Pinellas County.

On July 22, Pinellas County resident Scotty Jordan posted a video of an exchange between himself and Pinellas County Environmental Specialist Joe Graham, with the county employee saying the homeowner has to control the smoke coming off his BBQ grill.

“I can smell it again right now, but I’m on your property,” Graham says on the video. “You’re allowed to have it smell on your property, so that doesn’t count, but when I’m on the street, that’s when it counts.”

By July 25, the video hit the blogosphere and promptly went viral, filling viewers with rage against the system.

So far, the video has received nearly 2.5 million combined views over several posts. Mostly it can be attributed to titles like “BBQ outlaws” and “CORRUPT FLORIDA environmentalist NAZI saying BBQ smoke out of your yard is illegal!

Right-wing conspiracy blogs – like Intellihub (Civilian Intelligence Agency) — enthusiastically embraced Jordan’s video as a “shocking example” of the bureaucracy of local governments. For good measure, many also took a jab at the feds.

“After being asked how they were supposed to literally control smoke,” Intellihub writes, “Graham laughably suggested moving the grill each time it is used to match wind directions which would absolutely not always stop smoke from being able to be smelt (sic) by neighbors.”

The upshot is that this “craziness” is “becoming the norm” nationwide as cities and states “fall in line with the EPA.”

Now here’s the part that is – as Paul Harvey used to say – the rest of the story.

In an email obtained by Florida Politics, Pinellas County Administrator Mark Woodard put Jordan’s “conflict” into context.

Woodard explained to county commissioners that the incident was not isolated, but part of an ongoing problem with Jordan using commercial grilling equipment in a residential neighborhood.

Graham was responding to a series of grievances — 15 individual smoke and odor complaints since September 2014 – related to Jordan’s home, which up to that point, had not resulted in a single county citation. Fourteen of the complaints did come from one neighbor.

The only citation was in 2014, by the City of St. Petersburg.

In June, officials also attempted to “address the numerous complaints and educate the homeowner,” with an advisory letter to the property owner detailing various county and state regulations regulating open burning.

The county letter also provided suggestions as to “minimize the impact of smoke and odor on neighbors” from grilling activities.

Again, it should be noted that Jordan was using heavy-duty equipment in a residential zone.

It was not as portrayed in the blogs as an attempt to “limit everything from BBQs to wood stoves” under the pretense of reducing pollution.

“Pinellas County Air Quality has regulatory responsibility countywide and is obligated to respond to citizens’ complaints,” Woodard continued. “It is important to note that we were not there to regulate barbecue grilling.”

It is a simple equation – a complaint was received from neighbors about smoke and odor; the county employee responded.

There was no citation issued. Graham’s visit was simply trying to answer questions and educate the resident.

And no jackbooted Environmental Protection Agency thugs were to be found.

Jordan’s videotape did have a tangible effect, Woodard concluded.

“In the future all Pinellas County Air Quality Environmental Specialists who have contact with the public will be provided with clearly recognizable uniforms with county logos.”

The change will “bring consistency” with other county code enforcement personnel. Also, Pinellas County will have a standard response to any inquiries through the county’s email web portal.

So while bloggers smelled smoke – and there was an awful lot of it — there wasn’t really any fire.

Speaking of which, here is the Pinellas County Municipal Code on open burning:

Sec. 58-216. – Permitted open burning.

(a) A campfire or other fire will be allowed that is used solely for recreational purposes, for ceremonial occasions, for outdoor noncommercial preparation of food, or on cold days for warming of outdoor workers, as long as excessive visible emissions are not emitted.

(b) Open burning for the flaring of waste gases is allowed for reasons of safety, as long as excessive visible emissions are not emitted.

(c) Open burning is allowed for the instruction and training of organized firefighters or industrial employees under the supervision of the appropriate public control official.

Sec. 58-217. – Open burning for recreational purposes.

… Cooking fire means the noncommercial, residential burning of materials not exceeding three feet (0.9 m) in diameter and two feet (0.6 m) in height, other than rubbish in which the fuel burned is contained in an outdoor cooker, a barbecue grill, or a barbecue pit for the purpose of preparing food.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.

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