Inverness, FL–It started as a New Year’s resolution. With their son, Brody, due any day, Gary Bartell, Jr., and his wife, Breanna, decided to open up a roadside produce stand on Highway 19 in Homosassa, near the Greenhouse Bistro restaurant.
They opened on New Year’s Day with a sense of pride only a business owner feels.
But, soon thereafter, Gary and Breanna faced the beginning of a six-month ordeal, initiated by Citrus County Code Enforcement, Building Department, and Administrative staff fueled by complainants and a County Administrator fueled by a strict interpretation of local ordinances and codes with a desire to protect county residents and tourists from the slippery slope that sometimes occurs when local culture is allowed to materialize into a business form.
Only three days after opening their business, they received their first code compliance service, case #203876. Citrus County Code Enforcement Officer, Matt Hampton, stated a resident called on Jan. 4th at 9:27 AM with a concern that a business opened at the corner of Kingston and US 19 and was creating a traffic hazard. Later that day at 2:57 PM, CE Hampton closed the complaint stating that the use of a roadside produce stand on general commercial property was permissible under county code §3130, and that the produce stand met setback and temporary structure requirements, and that no site development plan or permit was required.
According to Bartell, on January 31, County Building Division Licensing Officer, Robert Defebbo, entered onto the Greenhouse Farmer Market’s property without permission of the owner or operators and conducted an investigation of an alleged complaint of an illegal structure being constructed.
Mr. Bartell claims that no record of such a complaint has ever been provided to date by the county. He also claims that when the Citrus County Building Department investigated his property without knowledge or permission, the county violated his civil rights, particularly his rights under the Fourth amendment.
The Office of Florida State Attorney General advised Bartell of Attorney General Opinion 84-32 which defends property owners from code inspectors that enter properties without a warrant. Former Attorney General, Jim Smith, concluded “Therefore, it is my opinion that a municipal code inspector is without authority to enter onto any private, commercial or residential property to assure compliance with or to enforce the various technical codes of the municipality or to conduct any administrative inspections or searches without the consent of the owner or the operator or occupant of such premises or without a duly issued search or administrative inspection warrant.”
According to Bartell, no warrant was issue, no permission was granted for county staff to enter the property.
On February 3rd, another complaint came in, this time stating that a sign was in the right-of-way. The issue was resolved on February 21, 2017.
But, while the sign complaint was being addressed by the owner, two more code enforcement violations hit on February 16th. One, case# 206527, was a use violation. Another, case #206548, was a sign permit violation. A Special Master hearing date was set for May 17, 2017.
On May 9th, at the last BOCC meeting prior to the May 17th Special Master hearing date, county staff brought forth proposed changes to Land Development Code §3130 and presented them to the BOCC for a vote.
The two proposed LDC changes would have forced the daily breakdown of their produce stand and would have prohibited the mounting of any sign to a produce stand. These changes The BOCC ultimately decided not to pursue would have affected both open cases. Ultimately, the BOCC voted to table such efforts as Commissioner T. Smith, and others, noted that changing the rules during an active dispute would not only seem unfair but could cause Citrus County legal liability.
Two days later case# 206548 was resolved as an “Administrative Determination.” Case# 206527 was also resolved, but was resolved due to a mini-trailer being removed from the property. But, case# 206527 initially had nothing to do with the existence of a non-compliant trailer on the property but rather a use violation under LDC § 4100, Site Improvement Plans. The remedy originally focused on adopting a Site Plan.
And, then on May 17th, the Special Master hearing for case# 206548 and case#206527 was cancelled by Citrus County.
Three weeks later, on June 8th, Bartell received another e-mail from the county. This time case# 212542, a use violation, and case# 212543, a site modification violation was issued against the Greenhouse Farmers Market giving the Bartells until July 14th to comply with the corrective action of a Site Development Plan under LDC §4100.
Citrus County claims that business actions have expanded on the site since mid-May while Bartell claims that he was merely conducting local business networking by allowing other local business owners to place marketing materials and flyers for their tours on his property.
Frustrated with what Bartell says is six months of administrative hurdles, excessive local regulations, unequal treatment, and a violation of his constitutional rights, he has obtained Luke Lirot as his legal representation.
When the Suncoast Standard asked Citrus County Administrator, Randy Oliver, if he was the complainant on the latest cases, he answered “I could have been.” When the Suncoast Standard attempted to contact Luke Lirot, the constitutional law attorney was unavailable for comment.
Bartell explained that Lirot was currently involved with a very large case in South Carolina and that he was still proud to be a business owner.
Suncoast Standard (c) July 6, 2017 at 2:02 PM
Submitted by: Lou Newman, Publisher