Judge rules for DEP, but Cortez fish camp gets stay order

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Raymond “Junior” Guthrie Jr. sits with Karen Bell of Cortez-based A.P. Bell Fish Co. Feb. 5 before a hearing in the Manatee County courthouse. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection brought the case against Guthrie for his failure to remove a house on stilts he built without permits in Sarasota Bay. Islander Photo: Kathy Prucnell
The house built by Raymond Guthrie Jr. in 2017 sits beyond the A.P. Bell Fish Co. docks in Sarasota Bay Feb. 6.

Raymond Guthrie Jr. doesn’t need to dismantle and remove the stilt house he built in Sarasota Bay near the Cortez-based A.P. Bell Fish Co. or pay fines for ignoring a Florida Department of Environmental Protection order — at least not yet.

While 12th Circuit Judge Edward Nicholas entered a summary judgment Feb. 5 in favor of the DEP and against Guthrie, the judge also stayed its execution. The DEP will not be able to enforce the court order during the duration of the stay.

Nicholas called it an “indefinite stay,” declining to set an end date as requested by DEP assistant general counsel Marianna Sarkisyan.

In ruling on the summary judgment, Nicholas said his decision was based on a proper November 2017 DEP final order, as well as Guthrie’s failure to respond or request a hearing.

As for his decision to stay the judgment, the judge said: “It’s appropriate to stay the destructive provisions with regard to this structure and see how this other case plays out,” referring to a case filed by A.P. Bell in May 2018. Karen Bell, A.P. Bell’s president, claims the land under the stilt house belongs to her company.

In addition, the judge postponed enforcement of the penalties DEP imposed in the final order that require Guthrie to pay $6,500 in fines, costs and expenses.

Nicholas reasoned the postponement didn’t constitute “an unreasonable time period” because a trial date is set for April.

Joe Beasley, a Cape Coral attorney who introduced himself as representing A.P. Bell and not Guthrie, suggested the stay.

Sarkisyan conceded no harm would result from delayed enforcement but requested a 60-90-day limit that the judge rejected.

Guthrie built the 1,200-square-foot structure, including a metal roof, air conditioning and other amenities, between February 2017 and May 2017 without state permits.

Beasley told the court Guthrie “rebuilt” the structure within the footprint of prior net camps and said, under the state Butler Act, there is no need for a lease.

The Butler Act was repealed in the 1950s, but may be used to grandfather bulkheaded structures in submerged lands when an owner made an improvement before its repeal under certain conditions.

Sarkisyan objected to Beasley arguing the merits of the A.P. Bell case, which is also on Nicholas’ docket.

In the Bell case, the DEP maintained the Butler Act disclaimer is not applicable to the Guthrie structure situated 350 feet off the docks of A.P. Bell, unconnected to the shoreline.

Sarkisyan told the court she did not know Beasley would be in court since he failed to properly set his motion to intervene in the hearing.

Throughout the hearing, Nicholas noted his displeasure about A.P. Bell and Beasley not properly asking to intervene, but he allowed Beasley to present Bell’s concerns.

Beasley said Bell had a due process issue because the DEP didn’t include Bell in its administrative case against Guthrie.

Beasley told the judge Karen Bell recently asked state Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, to sponsor legislation to allow net camps in Manatee County and, if enacted, he added, “The matter goes away.” Similar legislation permits such structures in Pasco, Charlotte and Lee counties, according to Beasley.

He called a court order requiring Guthrie to destroy the structure before the Bell case is resolved a “draconian remedy, even though we don’t know who owns the property.”

Guthrie also spoke to the court.

“I was born and raised in Cortez. My father had camps out there and his father had camps. This is the third time I’ve rebuilt this camp.

“Since I was a kid anyone who wanted to build a camp, just did.”

Commercial fishers used net camps to store gear and dry and mend nets in the late 1800s-1920s, after which they fell into disrepair with the advent of monofilament nets in 1938 and were destroyed by storms by the 1960s.

Beasley told the court the structure has historical value and is smaller than prior versions.

The DEP challenges Beasley’s size and historical claims in the Bell case.

In a defense to Bell’s complaint, the state contends the Guthrie structure was built in May 2017 and “occupies a footprint that is at least three times larger than any structure that may have previously existed at the site.”

Before issuing the final DEP order against Guthrie, the environmental agency sent investigators to the property, researched the site’s history and, in June 2017, determined the submerged lands were owned by the state.

The DEP sent several warnings to Guthrie seeking compliance and offered a consent order to resolve the matter, but he did not agree to its terms.

Settlement talks between the DEP and A.P. Bell are expected before the Bell case goes to trial, which is set for Monday, April 8, in Bradenton.