Lawsuits come with a cost.
A treehouse built without permits in Holmes Beach in 2011 has resulted in four pending lawsuits with the city and Florida Department of Environmental Protection lasting nearly 10 years, with a new plea by the treehouse owners to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Acting without legal representation, property owners Richard Hazen and Lynn Tran-Hazen filed a writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court Dec. 22, 2020, in a further attempt to keep the “Robinson Crusoe-style” treehouse — illegally built within the setback for the state’s erosion control line — from being removed by the city.
A writ of certiorari requests that the lower court send up the case for review by the high court. The case in the lower court was denied a review and hearing in spite of numerous opportunities afforded the Hazens to correct defaults in their case.
More recently, the city declined to renew the Hazens’ vacation rental certificates for their four short-term rentals — based on noncompliance with the treehouse orders, including demolition and daily fines — and the Hazens apparently have defied the city by continuing to allow occupancy at Angelino’s Sea Lodge.
The Hazens also reside at the multi-unit property in the 2800 block of Avenue E in Holmes Beach.
They are on a path toward a new hearing before a city-appointed magistrate, where they could be fined for renting without a vacation rental certificate.
And now, the owners have initiated a web campaign to raise funds to help with their fight.
The online funding page was created Jan. 2. On it, Tran-Hazen wrote, “My husband, Richard and I need to raise funds for our Tree of Love for Justice and Liberty. Under color of laws, we are losing our rights to use and enjoy our property, to grow trees and plants that we love, to rent for income and to have equal access to fair justice faster than sea level rise, storm erosion or climate change.”
In a Jan. 7 interview with The Islander, Tran-Hazen said the city and the DEP have until Feb. 3 to respond to the certiorari.
According to Tran-Hazen, the couple has spent more than $170,000 on legal fees for their lawsuits and can no longer afford attorney representation.
Additionally, the city ordered a $500 per day fine Oct. 16, 2020, until the treehouse comes down.
The city has noticed the couple that their vacation rental license for the property will not be renewed until they comply with city orders, including payment of nearly $100,000 in code violation fines.
“We have issues that we raised in our document that we feel are very important to pro se litigants like us that can no longer afford lawyers,” Tran-Hazen said.
Correction to high court
A story in the Jan. 6 Islander incorrectly stated the owners of the beachfront treehouse in Holmes Beach had filed a plea with the Florida Supreme Court. The plea was filed with the U.S. Supreme Court.
The new year has arrived, but new information surrounding the deaths of Sabrina Dumdei, 37, and Zachary Winton, 34, has yet to surface.
The pair were involved in a string of domestic incidents before they were found dead Oct. 17, 2020, in a Bradenton Beach apartment they shared.
Bradenton Beach Police Detective Sgt. Lenard Diaz called the case a “probable murder-suicide” after reviewing the scene, but his investigation has lasted almost three months — with no announcements or response to inquiries — and it’s unclear when an accounting of the circumstances regarding the deaths will be released.
Diaz told The Islander Jan. 8 that the investigation was ongoing but did not detail why more than 10 weeks have passed and there is yet no information about the cause or means of the deaths.
“There is no delay,” BBPD Chief Sam Speciale texted The Islander Jan. 8. “We’re still investigating.”
Meanwhile, the BBPD has provided no insight into the incident, including a 911 emergency call or the outcome of the Oct. 19, 2020, autopsies, which were conducted by the District 12 Medical Examiner’s Office.
An employee from the Medical Examiner’s Office told The Islander Jan. 8 that the autopsy and toxicology reports for the pair remain unavailable to the public, stating they require permission from the State Attorney’s Office to release the reports.
Since the investigation remains open, several other items have yet to make the public record, including a 911 call from Dumdei’s mother, Mary, made the morning the bodies were discovered, and an Oct. 16 voicemail Winton left his sister, Wendy.
Friends and family of the pair also have not responded to The Islander’s inquiries for comment on the investigation.
The U.S. Coast Guard rescued three mariners Jan. 8 from a sinking Versaggi Shrimp Corp. trawler, the Warrior, two miles west of Anna Maria Island.
“Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg received a call on VHF-Channel 16 from the Warrior operator reporting they had 2-feet of water on board and pumps were unable to keep up with the flooding,” a Coast Guard news release stated.
A Coast Guard boat from Cortez and a helicopter from Clearwater responded about 7:50 p.m. Jan. 8, and evacuated three crew to a dock in Cortez “with no medical concerns,” according to the release.
Debris from the Warrior was scattered in the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay from Egmont Key to Longboat Key, according to a chart from the Coast Guard.
Anna Maria’s northernmost point is nearest the site of the sunken shrimper in Tampa Bay.
A caller reported to The Islander the following morning that some debris had reached the Rod & Reel Pier in Anna Maria.
Mayor Dan Murphy wrote in a Jan. 10 email to The Islander that public works staff, with help from Manatee County, had removed most of the debris from its beaches.
“As to the remains of the trawler, salvage operations with divers are scheduled to begin today (Jan. 10) just off of Bean Point, where the trawler ran aground,” Murphy wrote. He noted that the fuel tank (maximum capacity 7,000 gallons of diesel fuel) remained with the hull in approximately 14 feet of water.
“Still, this tank continues to pose a potential threat to our beaches should it rupture prior to or during salvage operations,” he added.
In the meantime, the city placed debris from the wreckage into dumpsters near the Anna Maria Island Historical Society museum, 402 Pine Ave., for later disposal.
Murphy wrote that Versaggi’s insurance adjuster would inspect the debris “this week” and would cover the cost of the city’s cleanup work.
Another caller, Tjet Martin, reported observing large amounts of debris strewn along the shoreline “as far as I could see” in Bradenton Beach.
The Bradenton Beach tram has been shuttling passengers between the beach and the business district for two months.
But much about the Community Redevelopment Agency’s service remains unfinished.
CRA members Jan. 6 discussed improving service with a route map, signage and a more detailed monthly report on the tram’s performance.
The tram has built up a small but consistent ridership, averaging 108 people per day, according to its operator, Easy Parking Group.
From Nov. 11-30, the first days of operation, tram operators recorded 1,994 passengers — that’s about 104.9 passengers per day.
From Dec. 1-27, tram operators serviced 2,980 passengers — 110.3 per day — aboard the low-speed vehicle. The tram set its highest single-day ridership of 173 passengers on Christmas Day.
The report did not provide ridership information for Dec. 28-31.
The most popular stops along the route were “beach parking,” the Bradenton Beach Police Department on Highland Avenue and the Daiquiri Deck at 107 Bridge St.
The report lacked details on peak ridership.
City attorney Ricinda Perry, appointed by the CRA to coordinate the project, told the CRA membership that revenue for advertisements on the tram fell short of expectations.
The tram is intended to transport people between the large parking lots at the Coquina and Cortez beaches and the CRA district, where parking is limited. The service is functionally similar to the island’s fare-free trolleys but the route is limited to the beach parking lots and Bridge Street and the surrounding commercial district.
The CRA had hoped to subsidize its budget for the tram with ad revenue.
Five merchants agreed to advertise on the tram for a total of $2,475 per month — far below the $8,675 monthly cost of running the service.
“The money’s not there,” Perry said. “We’re asking. We’re just not receiving as much as we hoped when it comes to advertising.”
“Nobody wants to invest in a concept, they want to invest in proof,” she added. “We’re still building that proof.”
BridgeWalk motel owner Angela Rodocker suggested the CRA advertise to attract riders.
Bradenton Beach Marina owner Mike Bazzy, who also spoke during public comment, said the CRA should place signs at regular stops that show the tram’s route and provides directions for riders.
Perry said the CRA would need more information from Easy Parking on stops, but she hoped to identify specific stops before the next meeting in February.
CRA members voted 6-0 to request Easy Parking provide additional details about monthly operations.
CRA member Ed Chiles, a local restaurateur, was absent with excuse.
The board did not discuss Easy Parking’s report, but CRA Chair/City Commissioner Ralph Cole requested that the company’s owner, Joshua La Rose, attend the agency’s monthly meetings to provide service updates.
The tram is set to cost the CRA $113,150 over the course of the yearlong pilot program. The CRA’s contract with Easy Parking will expire Nov. 1, 2021, but can be extended or terminated at any time.
The tram runs 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. The service also services employees 10-11 p.m.
The Florida Department of Transportation and Manatee County posted the following:
- Cortez Road and 119th Street West in Cortez: Work to realign the intersection of 119th Street West at Cortez Road/State Road 684 continues. Phase 2, which will continue into February, involves a new traffic pattern and shifting construction sites near the village.
For the latest road watch information, go online to fl511.com and swflroads.com or dial 511.
And, a reminder, a fare-free trolley operates daily on Anna Maria Island.
— Lisa Neff
Pandemic protocols have prompted the Manatee County School District to adjust the school choice enrollment process.
The school choice fair usually held in December at the Bradenton Area Convention Center was canceled due to concerns about the coronavirus.
Past fairs gave families opportunities to speak with school staff and allowed opportunities to schedule school tours for interested parents.
Still, school choice enrollment continues.
Families considering sending students to a district school out of their neighborhood for the 2021-22 academic year have through Friday, Jan. 15, to apply for enrollment.
Anna Maria Elementary has attracted some prospective families, according to principal Jackie Featherston.
Parents interested in the island school can make appointments with the school office for a phone conference or in-person meeting with staff by Jan. 15 to be considered, Featherston wrote Dec. 17, 2020, in an email to The Islander.
So what makes AME so special?
Featherston said the smaller school allows for lower student-teacher ratios and the island environment allows for estuary studies and sea turtle education. Also, a dolphin listening station on the school bayfront is in the works through a partnership with MOTE Marine Laboratory.
She also said staff could boast about the school’s gardens, visits to nearby art galleries and bird identification lessons.
Eight or nine students annually apply through school choice to attend AME.
And once a student is granted school choice admission, they do not have to reapply for subsequent years, Featherston said.
The decision regarding acceptance is up to the district’s office of student assignment.
Featherston said of the 202 students attending AME, 36 are school choice.
Anna Maria Elementary is at 4700 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach.
For more info, call AME at 941-708-5525.
Manatee County’s November 2020 tourist tax collection showed improvement, with revenues over November 2019.
Representing the 5% tax charged on rentals of six months or less collected by the government in November and reported Jan. 4 by the Manatee County Tax Collector, the revenue totaled $972,618, a 13.44% improvement over 2019’s $857,410.
A “safer-at-home” order enacted in March 2020 to help control the spread of the coronavirus caused a steep decline in the spring revenue, as travel all but ceased and some businesses — including vacation rentals — shuttered until the state’s phased reopening began in late May.
Before March, “Florida tourism had just capped off almost a solid decade of record visitation,” said Jen Carlisle, Visit Florida’s regional partnership manager for central Florida. She was speaking Dec. 14, 2020, at a Manatee County Tourist Development Council meeting and not commenting directly on the November tax revenues.
In July, tax revenue rebounded to overtake previous years, and August saw the highest tax revenue in the county’s recorded history.
September 2020 tax revenues were better than other September back to 2014.
Though revenues in October and November were not as high as the three previous months, each was better than the same month in years past, despite the continued pandemic and European and Canadian travel restrictions.
Of the $454,009 collected by the island’s three cities in November, the Manatee County Tax Collector’s report shows $259,251, or nearly 27%, was collected in Holmes Beach.
Anna Maria accommodations generated $148,509, or 15.27%, and the $46,250 collected from Bradenton Beach was 4.75% of the total.
Anna Maria and Holmes Beach saw increased tax revenue generated by accommodations in November compared to the October percentage but, for the second month in a row, Bradenton Beach saw less, with a 0.47% decrease from the prior month.
Some more numbers for November:
- Unincorporated Manatee County, $361,605, 37.17%;
- Bradenton, $74,858, 7.70%;
- Longboat Key, $78,154, 8.03%;
- Palmetto, $4,159, 0.43%.
November yielded a net collection of $943,439 after the state’s 3% commission.
The December numbers will be released in early February and the November and December tourism numbers will be discussed at the next TDC meeting, set for 9 a.m. Monday, Feb. 1, at the Bradenton Area Convention Center, 1 Haben Blvd., Palmetto.
November tourist tax revenues
November 2014: $562,207
November 2015: $616,520
November 2016: $643,497
November 2017: $717,145
November 2018: $785,050
November 2019: $857,410
November 2020: $972,618
Source: Manatee County Tax Collector