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Couple is crusading against the system

Denied a zoning variance, a Madeira Beach couple decide not only to fight to change the ruling but also the board that made it.

By AMY WIMMER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 9, 2002


MADEIRA BEACH -- Like dozens of other homeowners each year, Len and Angela Piotti went before the city's Board of Adjustment five months ago looking for a variance. They wanted to turn their garage into living space for the two grandchildren who live with them.

The board turned them down, but that didn't stop the Piottis from marching forward with their mission: to expand their 984-square-foot house into enough living space for themselves and the children.

They created a Web site devoted to the cause, organized a demonstration in front of City Hall, contacted other neighbors who had been rebuffed by the same panel and might have a grudge.

Along the way, in a campaign that some have found touching and others say is over-dramatic and over-the-top, the Piottis have picked up a second goal. They are out to discredit the city's Board of Adjustment and its longtime chairman, Joe Jorgensen.

"The room is not done. The kids are still under our feet," said Len Piotti, who has sued the city to appeal the Board of Adjustment decision. "Nothing has been done because this process is so burdensome with appeals and briefs and everything else.

"We said, 'What the hell do we have to lose? Let's make this public, because we're becoming victimized by the process,' " Piotti said.

Said Tom Trask, Madeira Beach's attorney: "In this particular case, the guy didn't get what he wanted, so he's doing whatever he has to do to get what he wants."

The trouble began late last year, when the county caught someone working for Piotti enclosing the garage and remodeling it into living space.

Piotti was cited for working without a permit. When he tried to get a permit -- now at double the cost because he first tried to do the work without one -- the county told him his house violated the city's setback guidelines and that he must get a variance to enclose his garage.

Madeira Beach hired Pinellas County to act as the city building department.

The Board of Adjustment, the last word on variances in Madeira Beach unless an applicant appeals to the courts, turned down Piotti's request. Piotti claimed the board was trying to punish him for working without a permit.

"They didn't do what was right, and they didn't provide due process to me," Piotti said.

Jorgensen, who would not comment specifically on the Piotti case because of the pending lawsuit, said the board is not permitted to consider personal problems in making decisions about variances.

Piotti points out in his appeal his intent to make space for his grandchildren that he has custody of because their mother died last year, but Jorgensen said personal circumstances cannot be part of the decision.

"We have criteria that we have to use," Jorgensen said. "Those criteria stipulate that any hardship we deal with has to apply to the land or structure involved because variances stay with the property. We cannot take into consideration personal hardships."

The Piottis fought back. After filing suit against the city to get the board's decision overturned, the couple created a Web site featuring a Christmas photo of their grandchildren, John and Alexis Ryder, ages 8 and 7, respectively.

Piotti's Web site states that the family needs more space "due to a family tragedy that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001," when his daughter died. In an interview, Piotti said his daughter's death was unrelated to the terrorist attacks and she died following a series of mental and physical problems.

They spent between $200 and $300 buying county tax records that included the names and addresses of their neighbors, then sent fliers explaining their predicament. They also tracked down other people in town who had been denied variances by the Board of Adjustment, hoping to find people with similar problems.

"We've got to correct the broken Board of Adjustment," Piotti said.

The Piottis found several sympathizers in their quest, particularly Tom Saxon, the former city commissioner who has found himself fighting the city on several fronts. Besides a long-lasting rift over whether Saxon used his position as a city commissioner to qualify for a state flood grant to repair his home, Saxon also has been turned down for a variance.

Both of Saxon's squabbles with Madeira Beach led to lawsuits.

Last week, following a demonstration in which more than 60 people protested outside City Hall in an event organized by Piotti, some of his supporters presented a petition outlining several claims against the Board of Adjustment, especially Jorgensen.

His critics claim, among other complaints, that Jorgensen's role in his company, Total Realty Services, a real estate and property management company, conflicts with his board obligations. Jorgensen disagrees, saying the City Charter calls for real estate people to be part of the board.

Piotti questions why the City Commission does not have a more active role in reviewing the decisions of Jorgensen's board, which is appointed by commissioners.

But Trask, the city attorney, said his law firm represents five cities, and in each one, a variance applicant must appeal to the circuit court if a planning board denies a request.

"It's an informal judicial process, and there should be no bearing based on political views or positions people are taking," Trask said.

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