HB to pursue tree house violations despite petition drive

To save or not to save, that is the upcoming question for Holmes Beach commissioners when it comes to a tree house that has become the center of an emotional controversy.

In a letter dated July 23 from city attorney Patricia Petruff to Holmes Beach elected officials, Petruff announced that the petition to force a vote to possibly create a new ordinance to allow the tree house at 103 29th St. was successfully filed July 19.

Angelinos Sea Resort owners Lyn Tran and Richard Hazen were able to collect the required 332 signatures representing 10 percent of registered Holmes Beach voters. The petition is at the Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Office, which has until Aug. 8 to verify that the signatures are from registered voters.

The petition, if verified, will force city commissioners to vote on whether or not to create an ordinance to allow the tree house.

If commissioners vote against the ordinance, the matter will be placed on a referendum and the timetable could allow the matter to go on the November election ballot, avoiding the cost of a special election.

While the petition effort appears to be successful for Tran and Hazen, city officials caution against calling it a victory, saying it’s just another step in the process. The city will continue to pursue the cited code violations against the structure with the intention of having it removed.

Violations cited in the past year include building without a permit, building seaward of the coastal construction line and violating setbacks.

New violations outlined June 13 indicate that the tree house, as well as other parts of the resort property, are located within the 29th Street public right of way and in the platted alley located in block 38 of the Ilexhurst subdivision.

A code enforcement hearing was scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday, July 30, at Holmes Beach City Hall, 5801 Marina Drive.

City officials said that hearing will continue as scheduled because the tree house violates the law and it’s the city’s obligation to pursue the code violations.

Commissioners have given every indication that when the petition to create a new ordinance comes before them, it will be voted down and put to the voters.

Should the election results fall in favor of Tran and Hazen, city officials said it is unlikely that anything will change because an ordinance cannot be created that is contradictory to city, state and federal laws.

Petruff notes in her letter that even though the city must follow the process, “any ordinance adopted must be consistent with the comprehensive plan and should not conflict with state law.”

According to city officials, therein lies the problem with an ordinance. The city alleges that the tree house violates the comprehensive plan, state laws pertaining to the coastal construction line and city building codes. An ordinance, city officials said, would be virtually impossible to create that would not conflict with existing laws.

However, because the petition appears to be successful, the process must continue.

Assuming the petition is validated by Aug. 8, the city has 60-90 days to schedule an election. Petruff said if the supervisor of elections has room and can draft language for the November ballot, the city can avoid the expense of a special election.

If not, the city will be required to pay for the balloting and, according to the city, it won’t change the eventual outcome and goal of the city to have it torn down.

Petruff said commissioners will have to act promptly after the petition is verified and, to that end, the city tentatively scheduled an Aug. 20 public hearing on the matter.

The structure was built in an Australian pine tree in 2011, allegedly with verbal permission from former building official Bob Shaffer. Shaffer has said he was not informed of the scale of the structure at the resort.

Two years later, the city received a complaint and followed through to find the structure violated city and state codes and have since followed standard code violation procedures.

Building official Tom O’Brien has previously said it was the owners’ responsibility to ensure a permit wasn’t needed. Nothing the two resort owners have presented thus far, he said, changes the facts that it is an illegal structure and must be removed.

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