Residents of Ranch Estates, in far west Denton, have eyed an unkempt swimming pool in their neighborhood for weeks, complaining to city officials in hopes something could be done about the stagnant water.
After health officials confirmed West Nile virus in that area earlier this month, the city dispatched a mosquito-spray truck to cover a route around the subdivision Wednesday night.
Lancine Bentley, Denton’s code enforcement supervisor, said the department has shared residents’ concerns over neglected swimming pools. But because of private property rights, code enforcement officers are limited in what they can do without first getting a judge’s permission to go on a property to take care of a problem.
For some swimming pools at occupied homes, code enforcement officers have been able to provide Mosquito Dunks and persuade the occupants to drop them in the water, Bentley said. The dunks contain Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis, or BTI, a bacterium that kills mosquito larvae in standing water, with little to no effect on the water quality.
However, in investigating other complaints, not only are the homes unoccupied and the pool inaccessible, but the owners — especially after both homeowners and banks have been foreclosed upon — can be hard to find, Bentley said.
“Sometimes all you get is an answering machine,” Bentley said.
When a house has been foreclosed, most mortgage backers, such as Freddie Mac, require a platform be put over the pool for safety. Typically, the platform is left in place until the house is sold to a new owner, according to Nick Day, service manager for Gohlke Pools.
That’s usually when the pool company gets a call to clean up the mess. His company gets several dozen calls each year to revive a swimming pool, Day said.
It’s not a pleasant job.
“You can smell it coming down the block, it’s so smelly,” Day said.
Pools built for North Texas soils are not designed to be drained for anything other than repairs, according to Gohlke Pools owner Matt Gohlke.
“When they are empty, they are more susceptible to movement or coming out of the ground,” he said.
In other words, once a swimming pool is built, it has to be cared for.
“That’s about the only way around the mosquitoes,” Gohlke said. “It’s really a Catch-22.”
Since March, Denton has investigated complaints for 21 pools, one of which turned out not to be a violation at all, Bentley said. For 13 of those pools, code enforcement officers were able to work with the pool owners to fix the problem, either by monitoring the situation as the pool was fixed or supplying the BTI dunks.
Of the seven remaining backyard pools under investigation, officers have confirmed that five of the homes are vacant. Two others are still being assessed, Bentley said.
Some of the Denton staff met Friday to put together a new tool for code enforcement officers beginning Monday: an affidavit template for mosquito abatement.
The municipal judge has agreed to be on call to review those affidavits, according to city spokesman John Cabrales. That way, code enforcement officers can act more quickly to address complaints.
That will include fixing the problems at the seven swimming pools still under investigation, Bentley said.
In addition to confirming Denton County’s first West Nile fatality last week — a Denton man in his 90s — health officials have confirmed 70 other cases across the county since May. Denton has seen 17 of those cases; Lake Dallas saw its first two cases reported last week.
Of the 71 cases confirmed so far in Denton County, 47 were classified as West Nile fever, while 24 developed the more severe West Nile neuro-invasive disease. Symptoms of the more severe condition are high fever, severe headache, neck stiffness, disorientation or stupor, tremors or convulsions, muscle weakness and vision loss. Some victims may experience numbness, paralysis and coma.
In July, officials confirmed an average of one case per day. During the first 10 days of August, officials confirmed an average of three cases per day. Across the state, the West Nile virus has claimed at least a dozen lives and sickened hundreds in 35 counties this year.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.