HB seeks default in treehouse case

There’s been a swirl of motions and letters about a treehouse built without permits in 2011 on the beachfront from the county courthouse to the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

The latest motion in the 12th Circuit Court came April 30 from the city of Holmes Beach seeking to default treehouse owners Lynn Tran and Richard Hazen for not properly responding to the city’s enforcement case. A default is an initial court finding when a party fails to timely plead or defend against an action.

Tran and Hazen built a two-story treehouse attached to a towering Australian pine on the beachfront at their home at 103 29th St., where they operate four vacation rental units known as Angelinos Sea Lodge.

The structure was built without state or city permits, although Hazen had an informal meeting at city hall with the then-city building inspector, who told him no permits were needed for a treehouse in response to Hazen’s inquiry.

Though there’s been no hearing set for a judge to hear the city’s latest preliminary move, it is part of a bigger picture.

Attorney Jim Dye, principal in Dye Harrison and a partner of city attorney Patricia Petruff, handling the treehouse cases for the city, said May 8 he’s waiting to see what happens in another treehouse case — one that sat dormant for nearly five years until the owners re-invigorated the case in March with a constitutional challenge to the city setback.

Judge Lon Arend set the stalled 2013 case for dismissal May 15, after press time for The Islander. The judge’s motion states he will consider keeping it open if the owners show “good cause” in a court filing before May 11.

The owners brought the case claiming the city should be stopped from enforcing its laws given the couple’s reliance on the inspector’s advice.

As of May 11, online records showed no submission indicating “good cause” from the Tran-Hazen team.

Tran said May 9 she understood a motion for summary judgment filed by their attorney in March, after the judge filed his motion, may suffice as a response. David Levin of the Icard Merrill law firm in Sarasota has been their attorney since the controversy began.

The owners first applied for an after-the-fact permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. In 2013, they filed for relief in state courts and, in one case, petitioned to the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking review of a lower court judge’s order — an order that adopted the city’s position.

Litigation is now entering its sixth year, with the owners losing at each juncture.

Court decisions have upheld city orders requiring the owners to remove the structure and pay a $50 daily fine, accumulating since July 2015 and now at more than $50,000.

Before the most recent two cases began heating up in court, Mayor Bob Johnson and Tran exchanged correspondence.

In a Jan. 18 letter, Johnson told Tran and Hazen they had a legal duty to remove the illegal structure and apply for a demolition permit no later than Feb. 9.

Tran wrote back Feb. 9, claiming Holmes Beach deprived them of their rights under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution.

She also claimed she and her husband “cry for our beloved treehouse, a work of art, that put smiles on thousands of faces.”

Tran contended the city’s land development code is inconsistent or contrary to the Florida Building Code and she disputed the city fine.

They have spent more than $180,000 in their defense, she wrote.

According to court papers, the treehouse cost the owners $30,000-$50,000 to build.

Treasurer Lori Hill reported May 9 the city has spent $139,462.67 in attorneys’ fees and costs related to the cases.

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