ST. PETERSBURG - Lakewood Estates in south St. Petersburg is dotted with trees, perhaps thousands of them.
Most of them look alike. Twelve of them, however, harbor a secret.
"Since we don't tell anyone where the cameras are, there's no point in looking for them," explained Lakewood Estates Civic Association President Judy Ellis.
Ellis' neighborhood noticed an increase in crime last year, so they raised $2,600 to buy cameras, thanks to donations from residents like Karin Martin.
"The cameras are eyes 24-7, everywhere. They act as a deterrent," Martin said. " It makes our neighborhood safer and more livable."
The tree-cameras (on private property) are totally legal, but Martin's donation went toward the purchase of something else, which is currently collecting dirt and leaves.
Ellis has a pile of signs in her backyard now, which warned people entering the neighborhood that their behavior is under surveillance.
"You'd rather have a deterrent than you would catch somebody," she said. "You don't want the break-in. You want to prevent the break-in."
Just a few months after putting up the signs, though, the city forced Ellis and others and take them down.
"They're not legal, according to the city code," explained St. Petersburg City Councilman Charlie Gerdes.
Gerdes admits he was surprised to find out that the cameras follow code, but the warning signs (on public right-of-ways) don't.
They are not allowed on public land.
"We need to find a way to do that legally," Gerdes said.
Calling it a cost-saver for the city, Gerdes plans to work with his colleagues to draw up an amended sign code to present to city council for a vote early next year.
"When citizens present a willingness to be out there as eyes and ears, and they want to participate and help you, you need to listen to them," he said.
He hopes other neighborhoods might copy Lakewood Estates, along with other neighborhoods also fighting the issue, like Allendale and Yacht Club Estates.
"It makes it nicer to live in the neighborhood. It makes property values go up," said Martin. "It makes the city of St. Petersburg have a better reputation."
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