Tag Archives: Featured Image

Brown ‘gumbo’ algae invades island

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Another bout of brown algae returns to Key Royale Drive May 6 at 65th Street in Holmes Beach. Islander Photo: Christine Wright
Brown algae blankets the Key Royale canal at 65th Street during the last week of March and first week of May. Islander Photo: Christine Wright
A closeup May 9 shows the fiberous sheath of oblong-shaped algae at 66th Street. Islander Photo: Kathy Prucnell

“People call it gumbo,” Holmes Beach Mayor Judy Titsworth said May 9.

At the end of April and beginning of May, pad-like algal blooms pushed into waters around Anna Maria Island, hung around for about a week and receded.

But then the unwanted visitor came back strong and stinky.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection began testing May 9 in Holmes Beach to determine the toxicity of the large brownish oblong algae mats.

The DEP collected samples from two Holmes Beach locations — bayside at 26th Street and the canal north of Westbay Point & Moorings, 6500 Flotilla Drive.

Also May 9, DEP spokeswoman Weesam Khoury would not speculate on why the bloom was occurring and did not know when testing results would be made available.

The samples will be analyzed in Tallahassee for toxicity and algal type.

Similar testing from Lake Okeechobee, along the Calaloosahatchee River to Fort Myers, has been performed in the past month. And, in places, whitish mold has grown on the brown pads.

As to why sites were chosen, she said there were several reports from Charlotte County to Manatee County that prompted testing for six types of “microcystins,” including toxic cyanobacteria, known as the blue-green algae, and three other toxins.

“Residents and visitors are always advised to avoid coming into contact with algae and to stay out of the water where a visible bloom is present,” Khoury said in a May 9 email, adding the DEP will monitor and retest persistent blooms.

In Sarasota County, the DEP identified Lyngbya wollei, a large diameter cyanobacteria with the same thick sheath and dense mats, according to Stephannie Kettle, of Mote Marine Laboratory.

Lyngbya nuisance blooms are known to degrade water quality, damage beaches and shorelines, cause skin irritation, reduce biodiversity and impair habitat and food webs. “Mote doesn’t work with this type of algae,” Kettle said.

Mote, as well as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, research and monitor another algae, Karenia brevis, also known as red tide, which pushed into southwest Florida in high concentrations between August 2017 and January 2019, causing massive fish kills and deaths of manatees, dolphins and other marine animals and birds in the hundreds.

The current algae is not red tide.

Also testing the water in May was the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, a branch of the FWC.

Spokeswoman Kelly Richmond said volunteers sampled locations at the Rod & Reel Pier May 6 and School Key, known as Key Royale, May 1.

Results from the FWRI testing showed no harmful algal blooms, she said. Volunteers will continue sampling the water and may add other test locations.

Although the stench improved and no HABs were identified on Anna Maria Island the second week of May, some people living near the algal blooms expressed their disgust.

“Last week, after it sat in the sun, it was really strong. Like sewage. Even inside our house,” Holmes Beach resident Christine Wright said May 9.

Titsworth agreed, “People are hating it.”

She has asked Barney Salmon, the city director of development services, to research the outbreak.

“I firmly believe it comes from too much nutrients,” the mayor said, adding “It happens a lot.”

Reporting blooms

The DEP encourages the reporting of alga blooms to its hotline at 855-305-3903 or online.

The day the Skyway fell

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A tugboat pushes the Summit Venture from the wreckage after the May 9, 1980, crash into the Sunshine Skyway Bridge as a small boat in the center searches for survivors. Thirty-five people died. Islander Photo: Gene Page III
A Florida Highway Patrol officer helps secure the yellow Buick stopped at the edge of the mangled Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Driver Richard Hornbuckle of St. Petersburg stopped just shy of disaster that day, having walked back from the brink with his three passengers. Islander File Photo: Paul Roat
The view of the Skyway Bridge disaster scene unfolded from the top of the second span looking northwest toward the Summit Venture after it moved back from the bridge. Islander File Photo: Paul Roat
The Greyhound bus that plunged off the Skyway bridge May 9, 1980, is hauled up by a crane from Tampa Bay. Islander File Photo: Gene Page III
Shortly after the crash and the squall subsided, the Summit Venture anchored alongside the bridge with Skyway roadbed and girders on the bow and a crushed piling to its starboard. Islander File Photo: Gene Page III
An Eckerd College marine rescue team was first on the scene at the Skyway Bridge disaster and set about helping with recovery amid the wreckage. Islander File Photo: Paul Roat

‘The devil and the 
deep blue sea’

The bright, yellow suspension cables glint in the sun.

On a clear day, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge can be seen from Anna Maria Island.

Islanders also can see Egmont Key, off the northeast tip of Bean Point. Egmont is where Capt. John Lerro was sleeping in a beach cabin at the pilot station early May 8, 1980 — before his name would be tied to disaster.

Richard Hornbuckle was on a morning drive to Bradenton May 9, 1980, with three others for a golf game. In a rainstorm, he turned on his emergency flashers and moved to the right lane on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge over Tampa Bay between Pinellas and Manatee counties.

Hornbuckle was driving slowly when the road ahead of him dropped out of sight. He slammed his foot on the brake pedal, and his Buick slid to a halt 14 inches from the edge of the vanished roadway.

The Sunshine Skyway Bridge disaster was in motion — right before his eyes.

The men exited the car and walked back from the abyss, trying to comprehend what happened.

Hornbuckle, who died in 2000, and his passengers were some of the luckier ones that morning.

The Sunshine Skyway Bridge disaster remains one of Tampa Bay’s darkest events. Thirty-five people, including 26 passengers on a Greyhound bus bound for Miami and nine people in passenger cars, died.

The 609-foot long Summit Venture, piloted by 37-year-old Capt. John Eugene Lerro, had rammed the southbound span of the Skyway at 7:34 a.m.

The ship, eastbound to the Port of Tampa, was 800 feet to the right center of the Tampa Bay shipping channel. Lerro had lost sight of the bridge in a squall that came in off the Gulf of Mexico. He and he was struggling to keep control of the 35,000-ton ship in the wind and the rain.

He could not see the bow.

He could not see the bridge less than a mile away.

He ordered the ship to turn hard left and ordered the anchor dropped. But it was too late.

When the rain cleared moments before impact, he was unable to stop or steer the vessel clear of the span.

After the impact, the bridge shuddered and the cantilever construction flexed, taking down a quarter-mile of the southbound roadway, which fell from the main supporting pier to the other side of the span.

The first mayday call went out at 7:34 a.m. from the Summit Venture, according to skyway.com.

“Mayday! Coast Guard! Mayday! Bridge crossing is down!” Lerro yelled into the radio mic.

He and his crew watched as vehicles plunged into the bay. Some 1,297 feet of roadway fell into the water.

Wesley MacIntire, 56, a Gulfport truck driver, was in his 1974 Ford pickup when he realized the road was falling beneath him.

The World War II Navy veteran survived the fall — his truck fell with the roadway and crashed on the bow of the ship. The truck then bounced into the water. He fought his way out of the sinking truck and surfaced beside the Summit Venture and later said he feared being killed by the drifting ship at that point. The bow was covered with steel girders and twisted rebar.

A Summit Venture crewmember spotted MacIntire and hoisted him up on the deck.

MacIntire was the only survivor of the plunge off the Sunshine Skyway.

St. Petersburg firefighter Gerard Chalmers was among the first divers at the bridge collapse. He told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune he developed “bridge phobia” after the disaster.

Hornbuckle continued to travel between Pinellas and Manatee counties but always took a long way around, through Tampa, after the disaster.

A friend, Michael Gattus, said Hornbuckle became deathly ill the one time he tried to cross the Skyway again.


Wrong place, wrong time

The disaster was a perfect storm of Mother Nature coupled with human error.

The bridge spanned 15 miles linking Pinellas and Manatee.

The first span Skyway Bridge opened in 1954 with two lanes of traffic, replacing the Bee Line ferry between the counties.

In 1971, a twin parallel span was opened, carrying southbound traffic. The original span then carried the northbound traffic.

After the 1980 disaster, a new taller, cable-stayed bridge was constructed. It opened in 1987, with a clearance of 175 feet and a channel 1,200 feet wide — 400 feet wider than the channel at the time of the disaster.

Lerro was young and well respected in his profession when he piloted the ship into the bridge. He had piloted ships around the globe and was scheduled two days after the incident to receive a promotion to full-fledged harbor pilot.

The phosphate ship was empty — headed into the Port of Tampa to take on a load — when Lerro was engulfed by the squall that reduced visibility to zero.

Later, he testified in a hearing about the incident. He said he feared wind might push the Summit Venture into an oncoming ship if he tried to anchor. So, he chose to keep moving in the storm, not realizing the ship had moved out of the channel and away from under the high center of the bridge. It was too late when he ordered the turn and the anchor dropped.

After the disaster, Lerro’s pilot license was suspended — though it was later reinstated — and he was the subject of state and federal hearings.

In 1981, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He taught school in New York state for a semester in 1985, and then returned to Tampa Bay. He was divorced, suffered bouts of depression until he died in 2002 at 59.

“It was the storm and the wrong decision,” Lerro told a Los Angeles Times reporter after the incident. “The radar was out, the visuals were out. I ought to have put the ship aground. I was between the devil and the deep blue sea. That’s what I have to live with now.”


Today’s Skyway

The Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway Bridge that drivers traverse now is very different from the Skyway bridge the Summit Venture struck in 1980.

It has cables attached to towers to support the deck. The bridge is 4.14 miles long and the longest span in the construction is 1,200 feet. It has four lanes of traffic — two northbound and two southbound — and has a total height of 430 feet. Clearance for ships is 180.5 feet at mean-high tide.

The bridge opened April 20, 1987, and cost $244 million. During construction, the northbound lanes of the old Skyway — which were not damaged by the Summit Venture — were converted to carry traffic in both directions until the current bridge was finished.

The old bridge approaches were kept intact and make up the Skyway Fishing Pier State Park.

Wes MacIntire was the last person to drive over it the old remaining northbound lanes of the original bridge before it was demolished. Accompanied by his wife, they dropped 35 white carnations into the water at the top of the span, one flower for each person who died in May 1980.

The Islander, looking back on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge disaster, used the following resources for this report: The Islander archives, skywaybridge.com, WGCU Southwest Florida, Wikipedia, the Tampa Bay Times, the Miami Herald and the Los Angeles Times.

Jury convicts man for murder of girlfriend’s toddler

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David Vickers testifies in his defense April 25 on charges in the death of a 17-month-old boy. A jury found Vickers, who lived at the time of the murder in Holmes Beach, guilty of in less than two hours of deliberations. Islander Photo: Kathy Prucnell
Luca Sholey smiles ear to ear on a playground with mom, Melissa Wolfe. Islander Courtesy Photo

A jury found David Vickers guilty of second-degree murder and child neglect in the August 2017 death of a Holmes Beach toddler.

Vickers’ five-day trial at the Manatee County Judicial Center in Bradenton concluded April 26 with the convictions in less than two hours. Twelfth Circuit Judge Lon Arend presided and the jury consisted of two women and four men.

Luca Sholey was 17 months old Aug. 23, 2017, when he died from a lack of oxygen after suffering four broken ribs and other injuries to the chest, mouth, lips and ears, according to medical testimony at the trial.

Testimony for the state came from the toddler’s mother, Melissa Wolfe, her father Donnie Wolfe, Luca’s father Eric Sholey, Holmes Beach Police Sgt. Tom Fraser, Manatee County EMS and information technology employees and medical experts.

Vickers was the only witness called for the defense. He took the stand and spoke softly.

Vickers lived at the time with girlfriend Melissa Wolfe and her children, Luca and his 3-year-old sister, in Donnie Wolfe’s apartment in Holmes Beach. Vickers moved in with them in June 2017.

Vickers testified that to save money, he offered to watch Luca and the daughter — that he fed and got the children ready for bed most nights.

Melissa Wolfe, who was looking for a caregiver, was working as a waitress six days a week, supporting Vickers and the children.

The defendant told the jury that at that time he was addicted to narcotics.

The evening of Aug. 21, 2017, Vickers said he took fentanyl and fell asleep on the toddler.

When he awoke several minutes later, he found himself on top of Luca, who was discolored and not breathing.

He previously told police he found Luca in his crib and told the jurors he’d lied because he was scared, afraid of going back to prison.

Vickers also said he loved Luca and never harmed him. The defense blamed some of the child’s previous injuries on an accidental fall down the stairs, but admitted Vickers was not “ready” to be a proper caregiver — on drugs and just out of prison.

The medical experts, however, concluded the injuries were consistent with abuse — such as the bruised chest, broken ribs, fingernails dug into his mouth and squeezed cheeks.

On cross-examination, Vickers admitted to contacting an old girlfriend the week the child died, fearing he would be kicked out of the family apartment despite plans to marry Melissa Wolfe, saying he had “a problem with fidelity.”

Wolfe and Vickers obtained a marriage license Aug. 18, 2017.

Vickers also acknowledged he videotaped Luca experiencing respiratory distress that day, but did not tell Melissa or the toddler’s father, who regularly inquired about the children, including that evening.

Vickers called 911 and attempted to administer CPR until a West Manatee Fire Rescue firefighter arrived and took over life-saving measures.

Luca was resuscitated, but later died in the hospital, according to trial testimony.

Vickers was arrested in October 2017 on charges of murder, neglect and aggravated manslaughter.

He has been in the county jail since his Aug. 24, 2017, arrest for a revoked driver’s license and possessing marijuana.

He was re-arrested Aug. 30, 2017, for stealing a laptop and stereo from Melissa Wolfe.

The murder and neglect charges came after Holmes Beach police, Manatee County Sheriff’s Crimes Against Children and Florida Child Protective Services found evidence of child abuse, including an autopsy showing a swollen brain and broken ribs in various stages of healing.

Vickers faces life in prison. A sentencing hearing is expected this month.

According to a news release from the state attorney’s office, the prosecutor plans to seek a sentence of life in prison as a reoffender.

“That’s what happens when you’re found guilty of killing a child,” Campoli said.

Vickers was a felon convicted of property-related crimes. He was released from prison May 18, 2017.

“The loss of a child is always tragic to the family and to the community,” Assistant State Attorney Dawn Buff said, adding how senseless it was to lose “a beautiful being.”

Buff and Assistant State Attorney Lauren Benson handled the prosecution.

“It’s an honor to walk the family through the process and seek justice for Luca,” Buff added.

The prosecutors dismissed the aggravated manslaughter count after the jury verdict was announced.

“Guilty as charged,” said attorney Joe Campoli after the verdict, adding he believed the state had “a very strong case.” Campoli was Vickers’ trial attorney, appointed as a regional public defender.


Mom speaks out after murder verdict

In Melissa Wolfe’s words:

Hearing the verdict was a bittersweet moment. My son finally got justice.

The trial was painful and hard but my family and I are eternally grateful to the state attorney’s office, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, the Holmes Beach Police Department and everyone involved in this case for all the compassion and dedication to achieving justice for my son.

We are beyond thankful to the jury for coming to the verdict that they did.

It restores my faith in humanity.

My heart goes out to (David Vicker’s) mother as well, in a way she lost her son too. She is a kind woman. And I know it was hard for her, too.

Right now, my family is still just trying to heal from the devastating loss of my son.

Good news at sunrise

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Congregants witness the dawn’s first glow on Easter Sunday, April 21, at the 55th annual Kiwanis Club of Anna Maria Island Sunrise Service from the beach at the Manatee Public Beach, 4000 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach. The island churches pastors and officiates are located on the center stage, alongside a large white cross. For more Easter photos, see page 21. Islander Photo: Jack Elka

Copter flips in Sarasota Bay, 2 men rescued

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The helicopter that crashed in Sarasota Bay April 13 near the Cortez Bridge is raised with air bags and towed to the Bradenton Beach Marina. It was piloted by Josef Bakker, 48, of Englewood, who told law enforcement he attempted to turn and failed to realize he lacked the altitude needed to make the maneuver. See page 2 for more. Islander Photos: Kathy Caserta
The helicopter that crashed in Sarasota Bay April 13 near the Cortez Bridge is raised with air bags and towed to the Bradenton Beach Marina. It was piloted by Josef Bakker, 48, of Englewood, who told law enforcement he attempted to turn and failed to realize he lacked the altitude needed to make the maneuver. See page 2 for more. Islander Photos: Kathy Caserta

A recently licensed helicopter pilot made a bad turn and crashed April 13 in the bay waters near Bradenton Beach.

Pilot Josef Bakker, 48, of Englewood, told responding officers he was recently licensed. He was flying over the Intracoastal Waterway that runs through Sarasota Bay near Bradenton Beach with co-pilot James Rahming, 42, of Tampa, who was shooting photos of boats in Sarasota Bay.

Baker said he made a maneuver to turn the helicopter, but failed to realize he lacked the altitude needed to make the turn.

The helicopter, a two-blade, two-seat Robinson R22, went into the water nose first and flipped, according to a report from the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office.

The pilots were not injured.

Shelly Gilbreath was boating with her family April 13, heading to Jewfish Key from Palmetto.

She had been watching the low-flying copter as it hovered over a boat and then a Jet-Ski.

“I thought it was one of those helicopters that could land on water,” Gilbreath said.

“It was flying really, really low, and then it tilted to one side, then the other,” she said. “Suddenly, it tilted more than it should have, pulled up and tried to turn around. That’s when it went in.”

Gilbreath said her daughter tried to call 911 and they headed toward the crash, but other boaters got there quicker.

“We saw them pull one guy out,” she said. “I didn’t know there were two people on it until later. It was just flying way too low in my opinion.”

A Manatee County Marine Rescue team arrived and pulled the men from the water just after the 12:15 p.m. report of a downed aircraft in the water. Marine Rescue took the men to the Coquina Beach boat ramp, where the MCMR headquarters is located.

MCSO also responded to the crash.

The Federal Aviation Authority was notified of the crash, and Sea Tow was called to recover the copter.


City pier pile-driving continues, ipe concerns dismissed

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I+iconSOUTHEAST workers guide a pile-driving hammer on a crane over a walkway piling April 5 for the new Anna Maria City Pier. Islander Photo: Ryan Paice

Construction of the new Anna Maria City Pier walkway and T-end is chugging away.

Anna Maria Mayor Dan Murphy said in an interview April 5 that i+iconSOUTHEAST had driven 154 pilings — more than three-quarters of the 201 pilings planned for the 776-foot-long pier.

He announced the pavilion at the base of the pier would be fenced off April 15 for 10 days to secure the area for one last section of pile-driving close to shore.

Completion of the pile-driving, as well as leveling of the piles, is expected April 26.

Despite the failure of two T-end pilings, Murphy said Icon had not had piling problems during work on the walkway.

Following completion of the walkway pile-driving, Icon will place a concrete deck on the T-end and install wood bents to support decking on the walkway.

Robert Pelc, president of Advantage Trim & Lumber, in an interview April 5, said there might be an issue with decking the city purchased in March to save money in sales taxes that otherwise would have been paid by Icon for materials. The city is a nonprofit, tax-exempt entity.

Pelc said the ipe decking, contracted by Icon and purchased by the city from Decks and Docks Lumber Co., is too long and thin to prevent cupping and twisting due to limited airspace between the wood and the supporting material.

The city plans to use 3/4-inch by 5 1/2-inch planks, but Pelc, the president of the largest producer of ipe decking in the world, said he would have recommended the use of thicker, 5/4-inch by 6-inch ipe planks.

Pelc said the cupping and twisting problem would be exacerbated if the city neglected to oil the wood regularly, and could begin within a year. He said he called the mayor’s office and left messages, but hadn’t received a response.

Murphy said he spoke with city engineer Ayres Engineering about Pelc’s concerns, and Ayres determined that no such design flaw exists.

The mayor said Pelc could meet with him in person, but no such a meeting was scheduled.

“I would like to know what knowledge their engineers are basing that on, because engineers often call us for that information,” Pelc said.

Murphy told The Islander in an interview March 28 he thought it sounded like Pelc was critical because the city did not purchase materials from his company.

Pelc said he would have liked for Advantage to supply the city with the decking, but was unable to submit a bid because the city asked for a contractor that could both provide material and build the pier. Advantage could have provided material, but not construction.

He said he is less concerned with missing out on supplying the ipe and is more concerned that people visiting the new pier will walk away with a bad impression of the decking material if it becomes distorted.


I+iconSOUTHEAST workers guide a pile-driving hammer on a crane over a walkway piling April 5 for the new Anna Maria City Pier. Islander Photo: Ryan Paice


Treehouse owners file new case in federal court

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The treehouse in Holmes Beach stands tall in an Australian pine tree March 28 on the beachfront at Angelinos Sea Lodge, 103 29th St. The owners took their quest to keep the treehouse to federal court in Tampa at the end of March. Islander Photo: Kathy Prucnell

Lynn Tran and Richard Hazen opened a new front for the treehouse in federal court.

The Holmes Beach couple filed a six-count federal lawsuit, naming the city of Holmes Beach, mayors, commissioners, building and code enforcement officials and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, as well as DEP officials.

It is the second complaint filed in March by Tran and Hazen in the U.S. Middle District of Florida.

A prior complaint was superseded by the new, amended complaint served at city hall March 27. DEP officials are in the process of being served, Tran said March 29.

The six counts allege civil and constitutional violations under federal laws — Title 42, Section 1983, civil rights; Title 42, Sections 1985-1986, neglect and failure to prevent abuse; Fifth and 14th amendments, due process and equal protection; the First Amendment; the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution; International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In the suit, Tran and Hazen request a review by three federal district judges and an unspecified amount of money damages.

The lawsuit also states the couple sued to enjoin the city’s enforcement action “to destroy their treehouse” and seek damages for the city’s action “in violation of civil and inalienable rights.”

An anonymous complaint brought the treehouse to the city’s attention in 2011. The DEP also was alerted to the treehouse, which apparently violated the state’s setback from the mean-high waterline.

The new federal lawsuit is 96 pages.

The allegations include:

  • “With smiles, the city watched the plaintiffs build the look-alike Robinson Crusoe treehouse until one day, a caller complained” about the treehouse built without a permit.
  • The building officials ordered the treehouse torn down, “circulated false facts” about the treehouse, “leading haters” to scream at the plaintiffs: “Burn the treehouse, move it back to the Mekong Delta, get off the island, pack your wife and send her back to Vietnam.”

Asked about the allegations March 29, Tran said she had no further comment.

Tran acknowledged filing an amended complaint March 25 with the same underlying facts as the prior suit but with different causes of action.

The amended complaint came in response to a March 5 order from 12th Circuit Judge Charles Sniffen, which ruled the owners’ last petition for injunctive relief deficient in several respects, including a failure to allege a factual basis that imminent harm would befall the treehouse if he didn’t grant the owners’ petition.

In amending the state complaint, Tran and Hazen refashioned their claim, calling it an action for negligence and petition for preliminary and permanent injunctive relief in addition to a violation-of-rights case.

The next hearing in the Tran-Hazen constitutional case in state court is set for 9 a.m. April 29 in the Manatee County Judicial Center, 1051 Manatee Ave., W., Bradenton.

Also, in a Manatee County courtroom, the city’s 2018 enforcement case is set for May 9 and June 3 hearings.

The federal proceedings will be conducted in the Sam M. Gibbons U.S. Courthouse, 801 N. Florida Ave., Tampa.

Through Feb. 28, the city paid $156,403.92 in treehouse legal costs, according to city treasurer Lori Hill.

Jim Dye, a partner with city attorney Patricia Petruff in the law firm Dye, Harrison, Kirkland, Petruff, Pratt & St. Paul, has handled the treehouse cases for the city since 2013. He said March 29 he’s gone through the latest pleadings and labeled them “highly imaginative.”

About the possibility of settling the cases, Dye said: “I like to say: Never say never,” but because the treehouse dispute is a regulatory issue — the fact the structure lies within a city setback — the attorney said he was doubtful a settlement could occur.

Also, because the federal suit alleges damages, Dye expects the city’s Florida League of Cities’ insurance arm to assign attorneys to the case. He said his firm will continue to handle the state cases.


Treehouse background

Tran and Hazen have lost a string of cases since 2013 to keep the structure — built without state and city permits — after the city code enforcement boards, and, subsequently, a magistrate ordered the treehouse be removed and set daily fines.

Currently, the city is seeking in state court to enforce the 2016 magistrate’s order requiring the treehouse removal and a $50 per day fine, which has accumulated to more than $67,000.

After trying to negotiate an after-the-fact permit with the DEP and inquiries about applying for a permit with the city, the owners were turned away as the city stood firm against the setback issue for the treehouse.

And the court cases began.

In 2013, Tran and Hazen appealed the city code board’s decision to the 12th Circuit Court — saying they were lulled into not getting permits by building officials and commissioners, but the rules changed under newly hired city officials. Tran and Hazen were unable to satisfy the city’s request for a permit.

Also in state court, the couple petitioned for a ballot question — to let the voters decide if the treehouse should be grandfathered, only to be told a state law precluded a development initiative by petition, despite the steps stated in the city charter. That case was brought for a review before the U.S. Supreme Court — but the review was denied.

Three other cases — the city’s code enforcement claim, the couple’s pro se attempt to stop the code case and Tran and Hazen’s constitutional argument against the setback regulation — are still pending in state court.

Island mayors downshift paid beach parking

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Beachgoers walk to the Manatee Public Beach as motorists arrive to seek parking March 14 near the county-operated beach at 4000 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach. Islander Photos: Lisa Neff
Eden Hoffelmeyer, 2, of Sparta, Illinois, waits in her car seat while her parents unload beach gear at the Manatee Public Beach in Holmes Beach. The Hoffelmeyer family was on holiday March 14 from Sparta, Illinois. Islander Photos: Lisa Neff
Isaac Hoffelmeyer, 5, of Sparta Illinois, waits for his parents David and Christina to unpack the family van March 14 at the Manatee Public Beach, 4000 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach. The family, including Amelia, 7, and Eden, 2, was on a spring holiday. Another driver in a van from Ontario, loaded with people, is searching for parking.

Before they see the beach, many Manatee Public Beach visitors see brake lights and turn signals as they circle the parking lot seeking a parking space.

Might they also someday see parking meters at Manatee County beaches, as well as at boat ramps?

The concept of paid-beach parking resurfaced in late February during a preliminary budget discussion among county commissioners.

At the meeting, Manatee County Commissioner Stephen Jonsson, whose district includes west Manatee, Anna Maria Island and north Longboat Key, observed Pinellas County beaches have paid-parking and that user fees can help pay for amenities.

“I am just supporting research to determine what the feasibility may be and what consequences might also develop,” Jonsson said in a statement March 14 to The Islander.

Island mayors, assembled March 11 at Anna Maria City Hall for an Island Transportation Planning Organization meeting, said they have an idea the consequences would be negative.

The ITPO consists of the island mayors and generally assembles before a meeting of the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization, which includes an island mayor. The next MPO meeting will be at 9:30 a.m. Monday, March 25, at the Holiday Inn Sarasota Bradenton International Airport, 8009 15th St. E., Sarasota.

At the ITPO meeting, Holmes Beach Mayor Judy Titsworth expressed concern that the county commission may consider instituting paid parking at its beaches.

“I think that’s going to impact everybody,” said Anna Maria Mayor Dan Murphy.

In Anna Maria, the county maintains Bayfront Park on the bayside, but the city owns the property.

In Holmes Beach, the county owns and maintains the Manatee Public Beach on the Gulf of Mexico and also operates the city-owned Kingfish Boat Ramp on Manatee Avenue.

In Bradenton Beach, the county owns and maintains the Cortez and Coquina beaches, as well as the Leffis Key preserve and boat ramps on the bayside of the park.

Bradenton Beach Mayor John Chappie observed, “One-third of our city is county property.”

“It would have a traumatic effect on our neighborhoods,” Chappie said of paid parking at the beaches. “I was surprised when they came up with it all of a sudden.”

Titsworth replied, “And they’re talking about the boat ramps, too.”

At the Kingfish ramp March 14, Johan Rodriguez of Palmetto was putting his boat into the water.

Asked whether he’d pay to park at the ramp, Rodriguez said, “Don’t we already pay for this with our taxes?”

At the Manatee Public Beach, Martha Wilcox, a seasonal resident from Vermont, said she wouldn’t balk at paying for parking, provided parking was made more abundant.

“I don’t want to be asked to pay $10 an hour after driving around 30 minutes looking for a parking space,” she said. “If you are going to sell parking, you better have it to sell.”

Eight out of 10 beachgoers polled by The Islander said they wouldn’t mind paying to park at the public beach if the fee were modest and space abundant.

And yet, said Donna Snyder, who was visiting the island from Kansas City, Missouri, “If we knew of free parking, we’d probably use it.”

Titsworth, at the ITPO meeting, surmised that charging for parking at Manatee Public Beach would push people to search for free parking in residential neighborhoods or encourage them to poach spaces at nearby businesses, specifically the Public Super Market on East Bay Drive.

Murphy said Anna Maria officials studied paid parking for the city and found “it doesn’t have any payback.”

Chappie said he would invite a county commissioner to attend the next Coalition of Barrier Island Elected Officials meeting — possibly in April — to discuss the matter.

Jonsson, to The Islander, said the next step might be a work session.

“I have absolutely no idea what revenues could be generated,” he stated, but revenue generated could be used to maintain the beaches and also encourage other modes of transportation to and on the island.

Near the meeting’s conclusion, Murphy observed it was the last session of the ITPO in Anna Maria for four years. The chair will shift to Chappie, and the meetings will take place at Bradenton Beach City Hall, 107 Gulf Drive, beginning at 2 p.m. Monday, May 6.


Parking consultant study suggests paid parking
For the ongoing Barrier Islands Traffic Study, a Tampa consulting firm evaluated parking on the islands in Manatee and Sarasota counties and offered a series of recommendations, including paid parking in key public areas.

The study by Walker Consultants, presented last April, listed eight general recommendations for the study area, including charging “a fee to park in the most convenient public parking locations” because “implementing a fee-to-park strategy will support a best-practice policy for managing demand by price. The goal would be to make at least 15 percent of the localized parking inventory available for use at all times by creating parking turnover and encouraging alternative transit and commuter options.”

Another recommendation was to use parking revenues to lease park-and-ride locations.

A third recommendation was to use parking revenues to support bonds to build structured public parking “convenient to public-use areas and commercial corridors.”

Specific to Anna Maria Island, the report recommended working with local churches to use parking lots, developing an electronic wayfinding system so motorists can find parking spaces, establishing park-and-ride locations on the mainland, and, in Holmes Beach and Bradenton Beach, charging “a fee to park at designated public beach parking spaces.”

Rash of identity, credit thefts spur 
HBPD investigation, arrest

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Fran and Wayne Derr of Key Royale in Holmes Beach check their mail March 7. The Derrs were victims of identity thieves who attempted to obtain credit cards using their names. Islander Photo: Chris-Ann Silver Esformes
Samuel Casamayor Abreu, 27
Holmes Beach Police Detective Sgt. Brian Hall thumbs through police reports March 7 at the HBPD, 5801 Marina Drive.

In the digital age, personal information can be easy to access.

Samuel Casamayor Abreu, 27, of Hialeah — linked to multiple identity thefts that occurred since February in Holmes Beach — was arrested March 1 on four counts of credit card fraud and four counts of criminal use of identification.

A female suspect remains under investigation.

All but one of the thefts, in which credit cards were ordered under a victim’s name then retrieved by the perpetrator upon delivery, occurred in the Key Royale neighborhood, according to Holmes Beach Police Detective Sgt. Brian Hall.

“It’s crazy. I’ve never had a cluster of multiple victims in one location before,” Hall said. “So this is very unique.”

In some situations, the cards or related materials were mailed to the victims, prompting police inquiries. In other instances, a credit card was mailed to a different address and then used by the perpetrator to purchase thousands of dollars worth of items from Best Buy and other retail establishments in the state.

Hall was contacted March 1 by Best Buy representatives who said Abreu was identified in surveillance videos and currently was at a store at 4210 14th St. W., Bradenton.

The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office detained the suspect and a woman, who were later interviewed by Hall.

Fran Derr of Dundee Lane on Key Royale said she and her husband, Wayne, received letters from two credit card companies thanking them for their applications.

She said her husband went online and requested a credit report, which revealed that someone had accessed their report, including personal information, four times.

As the welcome committee chairperson in the Key Royale community, Fran Derr said she speaks often with people in the neighborhood. Once word of the identity theft got out, more people approached her and said their information also was compromised.

“It makes you feel very vulnerable,” Derr said.

She said the Key Royale homeowner’s association director sent email to members warning them of the thefts and more people came forward to file reports.

Hall said March 7 that it appears the perpetrator was tracking FedEx deliveries for the fraudulent credit cards and stealing the packages.

He recommended people send mail with personal information directly from a post office since it appears thieves are stealing mail from residential mailboxes to obtain data and open lines of credit.

Hall also said fraudulent charges should be reported to credit card companies as soon as possible.

Additionally, if a line of credit is compromised, most credit companies will offer a year of free credit monitoring.

Hall said people can contact three credit bureaus — Equifax, Experion and TransUnion — to lock accounts so lines of credit require strict verification.
“I believe the guy I arrested and the female with him are going to be responsible for all the cases,” Hall said March 7. “But we’re still investigating further.”

“Now that we’ve made an arrest, we believe there will be additional victims, and we would like them to immediately reach out to the police department so we can do follow-up,” Holmes Beach Police Chief Bill Tokajer said March 8. “The sooner we can get the info, the sooner we can get with the businesses involved to see videos of who was utilizing the fraudulent cards, and come out with a good conclusion for our victims and the city.”

Abreu was released March 2 after posting $40,000 bail. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges and was appointed a public defender.