Rather than fight Holmes Beach City Hall, Richard Hazen and Lynn Tran, owners of the now viral tree house at 103 29th St. N., have decided that rather than fight city hall, they will legislate to keep the structure.
They began circulating a petition authorized by Holmes Beach commissioners June 11 among registered voters calling for a vote on a special ordinance to allow them to keep their tree house.
The tree house was built in 2011 and approved verbally at that time by building official Bob Shaffer, who is on record as having given that permission. However, it has not been clarified as to whether or not Shaffer understood the extent of construction that occurred and the resulting tree house.
If the couple gets 10 percent of the city’s registered voters — 332 — to sign the petition, it goes before the city commission, which then must set up a special election on the ordinance.
The commission, at its June 11 meeting, approved the petition with Commissioner Marvin Grossman moving for the approval. Commissioner David Zaccagnino seconded the motion, which passed 5-0.
However, Zaccagnino wanted clarification on the process. Anna Maria attorney Jim Dye, sitting in for Holmes Beach attorney Patty Petruff — both principals in Dye, Dietrich, Petruff & St. Paul, P.L. — said it’s a multi-step process.
“The petition committee has to get the required signatures, then the commission has first opportunity to pass the ordinance allowing the tree house,” Dye said. “If it doesn’t pass, then it goes to a referendum and voters decide.”
Zaccagnino expressed concern over the cost of a special election and asked if the matter could be placed on the regular election ballot in November.
Dye said the city’s charter requires a referendum within 90 days if the commission votes down the ordinance.
“If that time frame falls within the regular election, then yes, it can be put on the general ballot,” he said. “But that’s only if the supervisor of elections has the time to get it done and if there is room on the ballot. If not, then it comes back to a referendum.”
Tran thanked the commissioners for approving the petition, but also wanted a response to their attorney’s request to suspend “or at least postpone a June 20 code enforcement hearing” on the tree house violations outlined in an April letter by building official Tom O’Brien.
Commission Chair Jean Peelen said she would try to get Tran an answer as soon as possible.
Petruff said June 13, that the code enforcement hearing “would likely be postponed,” but was unable to provide confirmation.
Petitions were made available to the public at city hall at the beginning of the June 11 meeting and many of those attending signed the petition supporting the tree house.
Tran is confident she will garner the support needed to bring the matter before the commission for a vote.
Tran said the special ordinance is about correcting a wrong done to her and her husband after they had acted in good faith based upon the advice of a city official in 2011.
“At this point, it is not all about right or wrong. This is not about blaming and debating over a long list of allegations in court or before a code board hearing,” she said.
“It is about finding a win-win solution and a happy ending for all. After all, the tree house is a fun and fond childhood dream for all who love fairy tale stories and something unusual and extraordinary,” Tran said.
If voters approve the ordinance, it will “stop needless legal debates and further loss of time and resources that could be used for better purposes,” she said.
Also at issue is whether Shaffer had the authority in 2011 to approve the tree house construction without a plan, or whether current city officials are correct in claiming the tree house was built illegally.
Tran said Shaffer approved the tree house and she and her husband heard no more of the issue until someone apparently called the Holmes Beach code enforcement office to complain. In 2011, the building department determined the tree house violates setbacks and other regulations as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s requirements for construction seaward of the coastal construction line.
Letters between the city, Angelinos Sea Lodge and its attorney, David Levin, and the DEP indicate there are issues to be dealt with at the state level regardless of the city outcome.
Jim Martinello, environmental manager of the DEP Bureau of Beaches and Coastal Systems, in a letter dated Dec. 14, 2011, requested the owner voluntarily remove the wood-frame deck structure and restore the affected areas within 30 days.
The DEP letter described the tree house construction as an “elevated post-supported, enclosed wood frame deck, with roof viewing deck.” The tree house and “alteration of an existing dune system” without a permit are deemed “possible violations” of state statute, according to the letter.
Tran and her husband have garnered media attention in their fight to keep the tree house. They’ve been featured on NBC’s “Today” show, an Australian TV station and most all Tampa Bay-area media outlets.
“Becoming a celebrity is not what we want. We want to go back to our quiet, peaceful life on the beach and operate the resort for all our friendly guests” Tran said.