Owners win HB-Bert Harris skirmishes

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Bob McCaffrey, standing in front of his home at 7003 Holmes Blvd., explains Aug. 9 how his property was devalued by vacation rental ordinances enacted by the city of Holmes Beach. Islander Photos: Kathy Prucnell

Homeowners Bob and Ellen McCaffrey posted a win Aug. 7 as the first of many ongoing Bert Harris cases in the city of Holmes Beach made its way to court.

Corporate owners of 106 75th St., Swackhamer Investments VI, BMeehan Investments VI and KMeehan Investments VI, registered a similar win.

In both cases, the property owners survived motions that attacked their complaint and accompanying appraisals.

The city faces more than $24 million in damages from 53 claims under the Bert J. Harris Jr. Private Property Rights Protection Act. It has a $1 million insurance policy in place to cover the claims.

Four of the 53 claims have advanced to lawsuits. City attorney Patricia Petruff told Holmes Beach commissioners in July more litigation may make it to court in late August.

The McCaffreys, who’ve lived at 7003 Holmes Blvd. since 1993, allege $106,000 in damages in a Bert Harris suit filed by attorneys Scott Rudacille and Fred Moore of Blalock Walters.

On Aug. 9, Bob McCaffrey spoke of the city’s unfair treatment, enacting ordinances that prohibit his home’s redevelopment while he is “surrounded” and “dwarfed” by other remodeled homes.

The McCaffreys’ complaint now alleges two Bert Harris counts — one against a living-area-ratio ordinance and another against the city’s two-bedroom limitation — as well as a Sunshine Law violation for the city’s failure to bring the terms of its offer letter to a vote before sending it to the property owners.

In addition, the McCaffreys allege a public records violation against the city for delaying and refusing to provide public records pertaining to their property.

In the Swackhamer case, the Texas investors who took title to the 75th Street property in 2011 and say it’s been family-owned property for more than 50 years, filed their Bert Harris suit in March over an alleged $225,000 loss.

In the McCaffrey case, 12th Circuit Judge Lon Arend sided with the homeowners, denying the city’s motions and requiring the city to answer its amended complaint in 30 days.

The same day Moore and Rudacille won the McCaffrey motions, they also won motions to dismiss and strike the appraisal in the Swackhamer case before Judge Gilbert Smith Jr.

Rudacille said the judges ruled from the bench following about an hour of argument.

Attorney Jay Daigneault of Trask Daigneault LLP of Clearwater, the insurance-provided law firm representing the city on the Bert Harris cases, said the city’s losses in court are “very preliminary.”

His motions had merit, he said, adding judges generally don’t want to decide a case at an early stage and the two losses don’t impact his future strategy.

The two other Holmes Beach Harris act claimants with pending lawsuits are:

• Florida Gulf Coast Vacation Homes with corporate owners Joe and Kelly Varner of Holmes Beach for property at 211 54th St. The filing was in April for $395,000.
• Frederick C. Hutchinson II trust sued in April for property at 104 75th St. and $552,000 in damages.

Smith is set to hear a similar city motion to dismiss and strike an appraisal Sept. 6 in the Varner case.

The Hutchinson case, according to court records, is in discovery stage.

The Bert Harris Jr. Act allows property owners to recover damages and file lawsuits against county or municipal governments that inordinately burden their rights by enacting laws akin to “takings,” depriving them of reasonable investment-backed expectations.

Once a claim is filed, the governmental entity is required to respond with a written offer of settlement within 150 days.

However, the letter can offer no change — and, thus far, that’s been the only response to the claims from Holmes Beach officials.

The city of Anna Maria, hit with the 112 Bert Harris claims, has only 29 awaiting claimant responses to city offers.

Anna Maria has taken a different tact — offering compromises that allow two guests per bedroom plus two additional guests, in lieu of strict compliance to its VRO.

The city’s VRO limits properties to eight occupants per lot or two persons per bedroom, whichever is less.

The Holmes Beach lawsuits cite a series of city VRO limitations, including regulations on the building envelope, foundations, pools and parking that were enacted in 2013-15 to stem the surge of short-term rentals replacing residential homes.

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