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A prior complaint was superseded by the new, amended complaint served at city hall March 27.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.
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.