council meeting to complain about a proposed ordinance that would create
a magistrate position to resolve building code disputes.
Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star
By Dan Moffett
Just about every municipality in Florida uses a magistrate to settle disputes over code violations between homeowners and local government.
Briny Breezes doesn’t, and that’s not likely to change without a fight.
In a scene reminiscent of a decade ago when Brinyites considered selling their land to developers, an overflow crowd packed Town Hall to protest a change residents believe could mean selling out their idiosyncratic culture.
Apparently it all started in Joe Coyner’s bathroom. A 30-year Briny resident who serves on several of its corporate committees, Coyner wanted a new shower and hired someone to install it. No one obtained a permit from the town.
A building inspector saw parts of the old shower outside Coyner’s mobile home and cited him for a violation. The town charged him $171 for the missing permit and another fee to expedite the paperwork. Coyner says he talked to legal and building experts outside the town who say no permit was needed, so he says no inspection of the work is needed.
Coyner and Briny officials have been locked in a standoff for months now over the permit charges and inspection. Besides Coyner, two other cases, involving work by an unlicensed contractor, are similarly stalled because of disputes over code violations.
In March, the Town Council by consensus asked its attorney, John Skrandel, to draft a proposed ordinance for discussion at the April 27 meeting. The ordinance would allow the town to hire a magistrate to resolve its code disputes. A magistrate is an authorized official, usually a lawyer, who acts as a judge to rule on cases and impose fines.
Word of the magistrate idea touched off a firestorm. Dozens of Brinyites signed a petition opposing the move, and the fire marshal’s limit of 70 filled Town Hall for the meeting.
“I am totally opposed to setting up this magistrate form of government,” Coyner said. “We have very competent people here. … We can solve our own problems.”
“You’re destroying the fabric of Briny,” said Joe Masterson, whom the town accuses of working as an unlicensed electrical contractor in the park.
“This is creating an adversarial relationship,” Tom Byrne told the council. “I don’t like what I’m seeing.”
Several residents complained the town shouldn’t bring in “outsiders” to solve problems that should be handled internally — Brinyite to Brinyite.
“This is an overreaching action. This is something that’s not needed,” said former Mayor Roger Bennett, who argued cases of noncompliance are too rare to warrant the new law and new expense.
Council President Sue Thaler and Deputy Town Clerk Jackie Ermola agreed that stalemates are infrequent, saying about 99 percent of the code disputes settle quickly and amicably.
“But for the 1 percent that don’t, then what?” Thaler asked. She said the council has no authority to deal with homeowners who ignore violations and fines.
“What do we do with people who won’t obey the law?” Alderman Bobby Jurovaty asked. He said he was concerned about uncorrected, serious violations that would pose safety threats even to neighbors — electrical fires, for example.
After more 2 1/2 hours of often heated debate, the council voted to table the proposal until October, when Briny’s snowbirds return and the park is full of opinions. Aldermen Jim McCormick, Christina Adams and Chick Behringer voted for the postponement; Thaler and Jurovaty opposed it, arguing the town shouldn’t allow the problem to fester for six more months.
At 4 p.m. Oct. 12, the council plans to hold a joint workshop with the Planning and Zoning Board to discuss the magistrate idea. The public is invited.