Tag Archives: 09-18-2013

Daily $100 fine imposed on tree house owners

Tree house owners found little mercy last week from members of the Holmes Beach Code Enforcement Board.

At its Sept. 12 meeting, the board imposed a $100 per day fine on Richard Hazen and Lynn Tran until such time the couple brings into compliance what the city has deemed illegal construction — a tree house at Angelinos Sea Lodge, 103 29th St.

The code board ruled on July 30 that the structure was built in violation of the erosion control line setback and that the couple built the structure without permits.

In the July ruling, the board gave the accommodation owners 30 days to make a viable attempt to work with the city to bring the structure into compliance by beginning the permit process, even though the tree house cannot remain beyond the erosion control line.

Building official Tom O’Brien said no effort was made to begin the permit process and, after much discussion on how much of a fine to levy, the board voted 5-1 immediately to implement the $100-per-day fine.

Hazen and Tran’s attorney, David Levin, of Sarasota, motioned for a stay at the start of the Sept. 12 quasi-judicial hearing, arguing that the code enforcement board no longer had jurisdiction since its ruling of violations are now under appeal in circuit court.

“Quite frankly, we were surprised it was necessary to file the stay,” said Levin. “You aren’t a court. There are limitations to your jurisdiction.”

Levin cited a 1985 case, Hudson v. Hoffman, where the court ruled that once a notice of appeal was filed in circuit court, it removed jurisdictional authority from the lower court.

Levin said it would be unjust to levy a penalty until the appeal is resolved. Levin filed for a declaratory judgment from the court, seeking to declare the city’s ordinance unconstitutional.

He is arguing that the city’s policy to deny a variance or special exception for building seaward of the erosion control line is contradictory to state law, which does allow for special exceptions.

“You don’t have the jurisdiction to take any further action until after the appeal,” said Levin.

Attorney Jim Dye, representing the city, disagreed and said the Hudson v. Hoffman case did not apply.

Dye said the Sept. 12 hearing was a separate process from the July 30 ruling.

“Under statutes that set up code boards, this board still has jurisdiction at the proceedings today,” said Dye. “If the hearing did not go forward, the code board was missing an opportunity to say, ‘We take violations of our codes seriously’ … that is exercising local policy in its purest form.”

Levin disagreed, saying the law is the law and “just as the city is trying to maintain the law against the Hazens, I would submit that the city has to follow the law that protects citizens like the Hazens.”

Code enforcement board member Andy Sheridan moved to deny the motion for a stay. Richard Motzer seconded the motion, which passed unanimously.

Levin then asked for a continuance, but the board denied the request 5-1, with John Wize voting in favor of the continuance.

The board considered three factors: What was the gravity of the violation? Did the violators make an effort to correct the violation? Did they have a history of other violations?

The board ruled out the latter, as Hazen and Tran do not have a history of other violations. So at stake was the gravity of the violation and whether or not they made an effort to comply to the July 30 order.

The code enforcement board had the option to impose a fine from no fine up to $250 a day based on the criteria.

O’Brien testified that the gravity of the violation was serious, considering the risk the structure poses to neighboring property owners as an unsafe structure at the mercy of storms.

On whether Hazen and Tran made an attempt to correct the violation, Tran said she hired a second attorney familiar with construction to work with O’Brien and that O’Brien refused to meet with her attorney at the tree house.

Tran’s frustration was apparent during her testimony, as she recapped events since 2011 where she claims she was told they didn’t need a permit to build a tree house, then told she did need a permit and has since been asked to submit information that initially needed to be done before any construction began.

“I brought a sketch in earlier this year and the city didn’t want to look at it,” said Tran. “We had three commissioners in our neighborhood and asked them, and they told us we didn’t need a permit. Now you ask us to go back two years later to do a drawing. DEP accepted our drawing, but you won’t.”

Tran said she was willing to do anything the city wanted to do in order to move forward, “but no one will come out and look at it.”

Tran said they are being treated like they just built a three-story home on the beach.

“It’s a tree house,” she said. “How big of a drawing do you need? If you would rather us build a three-story house, we are willing to do that. Come out and look at it before you make a judgment.”

Tran pointed out that the city is well aware of a number of nonconforming structures on the island.

“You have more worries than a tree house,” she said. “We are willing to do what it takes for an after-the-fact permit, but we never violated any codes, we were misled by a city official. The goal of government is to help us. We relied on your help.”

Tran said the couple has spent more than $40,000 on the code enforcement process alone and she is ready to tear the tree house down, but is holding out hope that something can be resolved.

Levin closed by saying that Hazen and Tran did everything they could to fix a problem created by the city and has continued to work with the city in good faith.

But Dye asked for the maximum fine of $250 per day. “The city doesn’t typically ask for the maximum penalty on a first offense, but the threat from this structure from a storm is real and there is an indication that they aren’t taking these proceedings seriously,” he said.

Sheridan moved to impose the maximum fine, but some other board members said $250 was too high.

Michael Klotz said the tree house is a violation, but not “drastic,” also noting they are first-time violators.

Motzer agreed: “I’m concerned with the fact of where the failure comes about and whether that lies with the city or owners. I do believe … both sides could have been better communicators.”

Wize again questioned the penalty when the owners were pursuing their rights through the court system.

“They have a right to due process and, while they are going through that process, we are putting a penalty on them,” he said. “Are we hindering that due process? That’s why I voted for the continuance.”

The board discussed other options before settling on the $100-per-day fine.

Wize was the sole dissenter in the 5-1 vote to impose the fine. The tree house owners will continue to be charged $100 per day until the structure comes into compliance or is removed.

A court of appeals will determine the legality of the city’s ordinance and, in the meantime, the city is initiating its own court action to deny the petition process, which could lead to a public vote on whether the tree house should be grandfathered.

However, grandfathering the illegal structure is unlikely, because a local ordinance cannot be created that is contrary to state law, which would be the result if the referendum outcome favored keeping the tree house.

Anna Maria budget easily passes 1st go-around

Anna Maria is heading to a record budget amount for the next fiscal year and city homeowners will face yet another tax increase.

Anna Maria commissioners unanimously approved the proposed $3.03 million 2013-14 spending plan at their first public hearing on the budget Sept. 11.

The $3.03 million budget is based on a millage rate of 2.05 mills, the same as the 2012-13 budget, but the spending plan amounts to an increase of 24 percent from 2012-13.

Much of the proposed new spending is due to increased revenues from ad valorem taxes, as well as an expected $350,000 payment from Ridan Industries for construction of a cell tower and a $149,500 Southwest Florida Water Management District grant to dredge Lake LaVista.

The budget also includes $40,000 for the reserve fund.

Commission Chair Chuck Webb said a rollback rate of 1.9507 would produce the same revenue as the current year. If the ad valorem rate of 2.05 is adopted, it would amount to a tax increase of 5.1 percent.

Commissioners had adopted a tentative millage rate of 2.10 mills, but the $110,000 increase in ad valorem tax revenues and other revenues allowed them to maintain the 2.05 millage rate and increase spending.

At a 2.05 millage rate, a property owner with a home valued for tax purposes at $400,000 would pay $820 in ad valorem taxes to the city.

The final budget hearing is at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 25, at Anna Maria City Hall, 10005 Gulf Drive.

HB passes first reading of 2013-14 tax increase, spending plan

Holmes Beach commissioners Sept. 12 passed first readings of ordinances setting a tentative millage rate of 1.7500 and approving the 2013-14 $9 million budget.

While city officials are keeping the millage rate the same as the 2012-13 fiscal year, the city gained revenue in property taxes due to higher property valuations. According to state statutes, that’s a tax increase. Millage is merely a percentage of the total, not the value.

Mayor Carmel Monti said the city’s millage rate — $1 for every $1,000 of evaluation — is the lowest of all island cities, including Longboat Key.

“Even though we’ll see a slight increase from property valuations and because we took a dip from the recession, taxes are still down from two or three years ago,” said Monti. “We have a slight increase in physical dollars, but it’s still lower than a couple of years ago.”

During public comment, Bill Shuman said regardless of whether or not Holmes Beach can boast of the lowest millage rate, “it seems taxes are still going up. I believe the millage should be reduced, as well as the budget. I think you folks need to find ways to reduce rather than increase.”

Commissioner David Zaccagnino said Holmes Beach has been fortunate over the years.

“We’ve always had the lowest millage and I’ve been very proud of that,” said Zaccagnino. “We’ve always had fiscal responsibility. Even when other cities were increasing taxes and laying people off, our budget has always been strong.”

Zaccagnino said most people don’t understand that only 10 percent of a Holmes Beach resident’s property tax bill comes back to the city.

He claims 45 percent goes to Manatee County and 45 percent goes to schools, but he also agreed with Shuman, that the city millage rate should be lowered.

Monti said a strong focus would be placed on raising revenue for the city over the next fiscal year.

“There is always going to be increases in cost of living with employee and retirement costs,” said Monti. “The better option to keep the level of service is to look at revenue generating and that’s what we are going to do this year. We have a strong reserve, the lowest millage and are under-budgeted in every department.”

Monti said it shows that the city is on a strong track and in a good position to look at generating revenue to possibly lower taxes in the future.

Commissioner Marvin Grossman moved to pass the first reading of an ordinance setting the tentative millage rate and Commissioner Pat Morton seconded the motion. The motion passed 4-1, with Zaccagnino voting “nay.”

During discussion of passing the budget as presented, officials discussed in length about how escalating retirement costs have led other cities into financial trouble.

While retirement contributions will cost the city almost $405,000 in the upcoming fiscal year, most of which is police department related, the police pension board is considered to be in good shape with its financial investments.

Zaccagnino, who has served as liaison to the pension board since taking office eight years ago, said the board has done an outstanding job with its investments during economic turbulent times.

“But we will need to have some discussion at some point because you never know if your investments will pay off,” he said. “At some point, we need to have a deep discussion to take that liability off our balance sheet.”

Commissioner Judy Titsworth moved to pass the first reading of an ordinance that will establish the 2013-14 fiscal year budget as it was presented to the public. Grossman seconded the motion and while Zaccagnino reiterated an argument for the need to lower taxes, the motion passed 5-0.

The budget and millage rate will come back before the commission at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 24, for final consideration.

AM ballot to include charter amendment

The 2012 Anna Maria election resulted in a scramble to decide how and who should be appointed mayor in the absence of a candidate.

Anna Maria voters Nov. 5 will be asked to decide on a charter amendment that clarifies procedures and amends definitions of the duties for a mayor pro tem.

The amendment also includes revised procedures for filling mayoral and commission vacancies.

The charter amendment was proposed after no one ran for mayor in the 2012 election.

The charter requires the commission chair, elected annually by a newly sworn commission, to become the mayor in the absence of the mayor. With no mayor, the commission chair serves as mayor until the next general election for mayor.

Last fall, SueLynn was nominated to the chair and thus became mayor. Her seat on the commission was filled by former Commissioner Gene Aubry. SueLynn also served as mayor from 2002-06.

A discussion then ensued at city hall as to how long an appointed commissioner would serve, and the issues were referred to a charter review committee headed by Howard Payne.

The proposed amendment clarifies that the appointed commissioner serves only the remainder of the term vacated by the former commissioner.

The amendment also clarifies how the commission fills vacancies and how a new commission chair and vice chair are elected when the commission chair becomes mayor.

Along with the amendment, four candidates are running for three seats on the city commission.

The candidates are Carol Carter, Doug Copeland, Michael Jaworski and Dale Woodland.

The electorate may vote for up to three candidates.

The deadline to register to vote is Oct. 5.

Registration may be done at the Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Office, 600 301 Blvd. No. 108, Bradenton, or online at votemanatee.com. Registration forms are available at city halls in Anna Maria, Bradenton Beach and Holmes Beach, and at the Island Library. All completed forms, however, must be hand-delivered to the elections office.

No early voting is conducted unless a state or federal candidate is running for office.

Anna Maria had 1,306 registered voters as of Aug. 1, according to the elections office.

For more information on voting, call the elections office at 941-741-3823.

False start

More than 45 signs promoting Bradenton Beach Commissioner Ric Gatehouse in his campaign for the Nov. 5 election in Bradenton Beach were observed along Gulf Drive Sept. 14, as well as some signs advising the BeachHouse Restaurant, 200 Gulf Drive N., is open during construction. But the campaign signs apparently violate city code that only allows political signs in Bradenton Beach to be displayed 30 days prior to an election. Temporary signs, such as those displayed by the restaurant, require a permit, while political signs are exempt. Islander Photo: Bonner Joy

Holmes Beach crafts election canvassing board solution

Holmes Beach city officials don’t recall ever having the problem they now face in the Nov. 5 election.

There is a city election every year, but every other year, when there is no federal election requiring the Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Office to staff people to count the countywide votes, the Holmes Beach charter requires a city canvassing board for that purpose.

The charter also requires the canvassing board comprise elected officials not up for election that year. Unless, that is, those officials are involved in a campaign, at which time the mayor is to select another elected official.

In preparing to supply this year’s canvassing board, Commissioners Marvin Grossman and Judy Titsworth said they would endorse one of the five candidates vying for the commission in the 2013 election cycle.

Titsworth said she’s endorsing incumbent Commissioner Pat Morton because he supported her during her run for office. Grossman indicated he is supporting one of the candidates who is not a sitting a commissioner.

Because Commissioners David Zaccagnino, Jean Peelen and Morton are all up for re-election, only Grossman and Titsworth were eligible for the canvassing board and both have disqualified themselves by pledging to be actively involved in a campaign.

City attorney Patricia Petruff said Sept. 10 at a city meeting that she spoke to the Florida Division of Elections and “they really didn’t have solution. The only statutes that deal with canvassing boards are at the county level.”

Petruff said the city must handle the situation.

“I thought it would be easier to change our ordinance,” said Petruff. “I changed it to read similar to other boards where the mayor can appoint members, but with the consent of the commission.”

The change was up for first reading at the city meeting and, Petruff said if passed, candidates could be presented soon because “the work of the canvassing board begins around mid-October. So time is of the essence.”

Morton moved to approve the first reading, which was seconded by Titsworth. During discussion, Zaccagnino expressed opposition.

“This is very strange,” he said. “In the 50 years of the city, this has never happened. You want to change a law just so Commissioner Grossman can wear a T-shirt. This has never been done in this city. To change this law just for Commissioner Grossman is unacceptable.”

While Zaccagnino targeted Grossman, Titsworth also has disqualified herself to campaign for an incumbent.

Grossman previously said he intends to exercise his constitutional right to support a candidate and reminded Zaccagnino that “I already had disqualified myself. A number of cities don’t do it this way. You have something to lose, that’s why you want to shut me up.”

Zaccagnino said he wasn’t worried about the election and said what upset him was the need to change a longstanding law on behalf of one person.

Peelen reminded Zaccagnino that both Grossman and Titsworth disqualified themselves before they were aware of the canvassing board requirements and it was too late to back out of their support for a candidate.

“They already acted politically, so they were already disqualified at that point,” said Peelen. “To say it’s because they are unhappy about someone is not the case.”

Zaccagnino said in the past commissioners have “played nice” and respected one another’s candidacy.

But Zaccagnino had support from a seated Holmes Beach commissioner in his first run for office, and other elected officials in the city have supported candidates, most often their fellow commissioners.

Grossman agreed it was better to be cooperative.

“The nicer people that get along would work together,” said Grossman. “It’s a problem that needs to be worked out in a nice and orderly way like the commission used to be.”

Peelen called for a vote on approving the first reading, which passed 4-1. Zaccagnino dissented.

The city is seeking interested people to serve on the canvassing board. Those interested can contact city clerk Stacey Johnston for more information at Holmes Beach City Hall, 5801 Marina Drive.

Mayor Carmel Monti will recommend potential board members and his selections will need to be approved by the commission at a public meeting should commissioners pass the final reading at the Sept. 26 city meeting.

Some Anna Maria vacation rental owners poised to sue city

While Anna Maria is poised to sue some vacation homeowners over rental terms, it seems the property owners also are hovering on plans for action.

If the Anna Maria City Commission proceeds with its plan to obtain a declaratory judgment on whether its hotel/motel ordinance applies to vacation home rentals, attorney Scott Rudacille said 40 vacation rental owners in Anna Maria are poised to “intervene in the action to protect their rights and to invoke their constitutional and statutory protections.”

Rudacille made his comments in a letter to city commissioners Sept. 10 as a follow up to an Aug. 22 meeting, where commissioners voted 4-1 to proceed with a judicial review of the motel ordinance to determine if it can be applied to vacation rental properties. Commissioner Gene Aubry voted no.

In a follow-up interview, Rudacille said, “Frankly, I was baffled when this came up.”

He was at the Aug. 22 meeting for another issue when Commission Chair Chuck Webb introduced his plan.

“I was stunned. I thought the commission had settled this issue back in January,” Rudacille said.

Apparently not to Webb’s satisfaction, who was prepared to present evidence against a vacation rental property at the Aug. 22 meeting. But city attorney Jim Dye said the entire commission should decide which property to target if the city undertakes a judicial review.

The process would include initiating code enforcement with a citation against either a property or properties that results in non-compliance with the citation, a hearing before the city’s special master, then an appeal to the circuit court by the loser in the hearing, Rudacille said.

“That’s my understanding of the process,” he said.

Rudacille said it appears Webb is re-interpreting the commission’s January decision that vacation rentals are legal, but must follow city codes on noise, trash and other issues.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a city do what Anna Maria is proposing,” he said. “In all the cases I’ve studied, it’s been the property owner versus the government. Additionally, a judgment in favor of the city would only apply to those particular vacation rental owners named in the suit.”

He also said there is no “bona fide dispute” between the parties, which also is a requirement for declaratory relief.

“Because the city commission has officially rejected this interpretation, there is no dispute as to the matter. As such, any attempt by the city to bring a claim for declaratory relief would be subject to dismissal,” Rudacille said.

Aubry, in an interview Sept. 10, said, “This is frivolous. We’ve already been through this in January. It makes no sense and all it will do is cost the city a lot of money. And, if we lose, the judge could award damages and make us pay legal fees. I’m totally against moving forward with this.”

Rudacille said any move by the city to go to court would be long and involved.

Dye estimated it would take 9-15 months before the city could get its case heard in circuit court.

Under the city charter, any action by the city for violation of a city code must first proceed through the code enforcement process.

“We have so many other issues, and I thought we had settled this,” Aubry said. “We have the best practices, we have law enforcement doing its job to stop loud noises and parties. We’re going to look at parking. This action for declaratory relief is a complete waste of the city’s time and money. Let’s give these other measures time to work.”

Anna Maria postpones discussion on controversial issues

Members of the public attending the Sept. 12 Anna Maria commission meeting who came expecting a discussion on a paid-parking proposal and a possible lawsuit against some vacation rentals left the meeting room early and disappointed.

Commission Chair Chuck Webb said those issues would be discussed in future, single-topic work sessions.

Mayor SueLynn said her paid-parking plan was not yet ready for commission review and Webb set a special meeting on the topic for 6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 24.

But no date was set to discuss the commission’s decision to seek declaratory relief in court to apply the hotel/motel ordinance to vacation rentals, expected by many attending the meeting, including attorney Scott Rudacille of the law firm of Blalock Walters in Bradenton, who says he represents at least 40 Anna Maria vacation rental owners prepared to challenge the city initiative.

Commissioner Gene Aubry said he was offended by the use of the term “day-trippers” by some city officials. He called it discriminatory and embarrassing to the city, especially since Anna Maria has just been named one of the most picturesque small towns in America.

Mayor SueLynn agreed and said she now refers to short-term visitors to the city as “day visitors.”

The commission did discuss other issues and ordinances.

A final public hearing for the historic preservation ordinance was continued to 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 26. City planner Alan Garrett assured commissioners the ordinance would be ready.

“Good,” said Commissioner Dale Woodland. “My original copy is gathering dust waiting for the final public hearing.”

The hearing has been postponed a number of times while Garrett and city attorney Jim Dye worked on ironing out the ordinance language.

Garrett suggested commissioners consider a “grand tree” ordinance, which would make destruction of trees identified in the ordinance illegal without a permit.

Anna Maria is one of the few cities in Florida without a tree ordinance, he said. At present, a developer can come in and completely remove all existing trees and vegetation on a lot.

A grand tree ordinance would define a grand tree based on federal regulations, make it illegal to remove native trees and grand trees without a variance, and ensure protection of the environment.

The ordinance would apply to new development. Trees defined as a “nuisance” would be species that invade neighboring properties.

Garrett said the ordinance would not take away anyone’s building rights, and would provide mitigation if a non-invasive nuisance tree had to be removed. He added that people who “just want to change their landscape” could apply for a permit to remove native trees.

“We could make them plant two trees for removing one, and new trees would be native species,” he said.

“I hope there is a positive influence to move forward with a tree ordinance,” Garrett said.

Woodland suggested severe penalties for someone removing mangroves or native trees without a permit.

Webb said a $10,000 fine would make people think twice before removing a native tree.

Garrett suggested more discussion before he prepares a draft ordinance.

Dye and Welch updated commissioners on the progress of the cell tower, which will be constructed on city property adjacent to city hall.

Dye said there have been some discussions with Jim Eatrides of Ridan Industries about allowing storage space for the city in the tower equipment room. He also told Eatrides the city could “sign a lease as soon as these last few comments are added.”

SueLynn said only one cabbage palm would have to be removed to accommodate the 30-by-90-foot ground-level cell-tower facility.

At the signing of the lease, the city expects to receive a one-time payment of $350,000 from Ridan, and the company would then begin making monthly rent payments to the city.

SueLynn updated commissioners on the progress of what she called the “Anna Maria City Pier Park” on Pine Avenue, saying the next phase will be to put in the sprinkler system and start installing the trees.

The next regular commission meeting will be at 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 26, at Anna Maria City Hall, 10005 Gulf Drive.

Anna Maria mayor strikes back at critics

Anna Maria Mayor SueLynn indicated displeasure last week over recent emails sent her and press coverage resulting from suggestions of tolls and paid parking to limit visitors to the northernmost city.

A conversation about tolls to the island began after the Memorial Day weekend, during the June 17 Island Transportation and Planning Organization meeting, where SueLynn said the holiday resulted in the city being “inundated with cars.” She also said a toll to enter Anna Maria Island is no longer a joking matter.

At a July 25 city meeting, she told commissioners that traffic congestion in the city is so bad at times, it threatens to “degrade the character of our city.”

Anna Maria Mayor SueLynn said she received numerous emails in recent weeks that were “hateful and misconstrued” her position on a toll to Anna Maria Island.

She said she’s also been criticized for a paid-parking plan, one that has yet to be presented to the Anna Maria City Commission for discussion. She expects that presentation to take place at a September meeting.

What has really upset the mayor is some people believe she wants a toll booth to enter Anna Maria Island.

“I’ve gotten such hateful emails from people on the mainland,” she said.

“I have not proposed ever that there should be a toll to get on to Anna Maria Island. It is true there are those who would like it to be considered, but for me, the toll is a non-issue,” the mayor wrote in her response to critics.

Commissioners discussed at an Aug. 25 meeting putting a booth at the Gulf Drive entrance to the city from Holmes Beach, where day visitors would be required to purchase a parking pass before entering the city, but SueLynn proposed developing a parking plan and discussion was delayed.

She acknowledged Anna Maria and Holmes Beach officials are in discussions about paid-parking and parking-by-permit. Anna Maria commissioners asked her to present a parking plan but the plan, the mayor stressed, is not ready for presentation.

She said a majority of parking problems on the island are caused by people coming from outside Manatee County.

“A number of these people have little, if any, respect for the area they visit,” she said.

“When all is said and done, those of you who wrote the ugly and threatening emails to me will see that there was never a discussion of a toll to get on the island and that especially those of you from Manatee County are welcome as always to enjoy the island’s beauty and beaches,” the mayor said.

AME calls for peace on International Peace Day

Anna Maria Elementary School students and staff will celebrate the United Nations International Peace Day Tuesday, Sept. 24, with the unveiling of a new AME peace pole to replace the one erected on the campus soon after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.

AME guidance counselor Cindi Harrison recalls the autumn day in 2001 that two students from New York City enrolled at the island school. They arrived to enroll at AME from P.S. 69 in Queens, N.Y., on a September morning when all the television sets in the school tuned in to watch President George W. Bush, who was reading to students at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota. The president’s reading was interrupted by White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, who leaned down and whispered in Bush’s ear.

In Queens on Sept. 11, 2001, students at P.S. 69 could see the twin towers of the World Trade Center from the top floor of their school. As the planes hit and people plunged from the buildings, some of the students asked their teachers why there were so many “birds” around the buildings, Harrison recalled being told by staff at the New York school.

“We were very worried about the kids in that school. We now had two of them,” Harrison said. “We wanted to connect with (students still at P.S. 69), and to help them. It took seven days to get a phone line in there.”

Harrison and then-AME principal Tim Kolbe did connect with P.S. 69. “As educators we wanted to respond to our students and our community, and we wanted to respond positively,” Harrison said.

Earlier in 2001, AME had been approached by the Rotary Club of Anna Maria Island, which was, and continues to be, an important partner and sponsor at AME.

When asked if the school had a project the Rotarians could help fund, Harrison knew the answer. With the help of the club, the Peace Pole project was initiated. Not just one, but two Peace Poles were purchased — one for AME and one for P.S. 69.

Harrison and Kolbe traveled in April 2002 to New York City to visit P.S. 69 and participate in a Peace Pole dedication there — their pole also was a gift from the island Rotary Club.

They brought with them sand from the AMI beach and added it to the ground around P.S. 69’s pole. AME had another partner in peace.

“It was, is, the most important event of my career, and this is my 38th year,” Harrison said. “Our schools and our children were so different, but they all wanted the same thing. No more war. No more violence.”

The installation of the Peace Pole at AME began an annual celebration of International Peace Day at the school.

This year’s Peace Day theme at AME is “How do you speak peace?” Emphasis is being placed on language and the power of words to create peace and reduce conflict. Students, parents and the community are encouraged to send words or messages of peace to the school to be read at the student event.

“This year is going to be significant. We want to show how powerful words are — more powerful than weapons. I just think it’s so interesting in this conflict with Syria right now. Words matter,” Harrison said.

“Kids are a wealth of inspiration. Our kids have grown up with so much violence. We can tell our children, there is hope. You make a difference. The only way to solve our problems and make the world better is to stand up for what we believe in, promote peace or we’re going to destroy ourselves.”

AME’s Peace Day celebration will begin at 8:45 a.m., Tuesday, Sept. 24, in the gardens in front of the school. The celebration will last about an hour and the public is welcome. There will be music, poetry readings, speakers and a presentation of peace messages by the classes.

To share a message of peace, email Harrison at harrisc@manateeschools.net, or deliver it to the school at 4700 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach.