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Boat lift issue is resolved

But a "not guilty" doesn't make up for the acrimony.

Published March 4, 2007


MADEIRA BEACH - A yearlong legal dispute over an allegedly "erroneous" boat lift permit ended last week in County Court with a "not guilty" verdict for the property owners, and a political headache for city officials.

That it took a year to resolve is not the most controversial aspect of this case.

The property owners, Donald and Jane Colson, are upset and feel they were treated like criminals, particularly as their case ended up in Pinellas County Criminal Court.

The neighbors who first raised the issue, Randy and Rosemary Fedon, still have a boat lift within 7 feet of their property line. The Fedons could not be reached for comment.

City administrators are defensive and insist they pursued what they viewed as the best course for the city and its residents.

Tuesday, the City Commission decided to take another look at how the city regulates its building and zoning codes.

It all started in February 2006 when Donald Colson applied for a permit to move two pilings and install a new boat lift.

The permit application used the word "renovate" on a diagram showing an existing boat lift.

That word - and the fact that there had not been a working boat lift for possibly decades - became the crux of the case.

In the end, Pinellas County Judge John Carassas ruled that the city and the county had not proved their case beyond a reasonable doubt - in essence, that they had not proved that a boat lift had never existed on the Colsons' property.

The dispute over the boat lift began when the Colsons' neighbors, the Fedons, complained that the permit issued by the Pinellas County Building Department and the Pinellas County Water and Navigation Control Authority was invalid.

The Fedons' protest escalated over the ensuing months and at one point they said "we consider the Colsons' fraudulent use of a boat permit and the blatant illegal construction of a boatlift permit to be of the highest violation against the building code."

The Colsons countered that they were merely replacing a pre-existing boat lift and had photos and affidavits to prove that it had been there in the past.

For the city, the real issue was the placement of the boat lift. City codes require new docks and boat lifts to be in the middle third of the waterfront property line. Anything placed outside that envelope requires the signature of the adjacent property owner.

Complicating the issue was the question of when and if a pre-existing dock or boat lift is "grandfathered" and not covered by present-day codes - and, further, whether a boat lift must still be in working condition to qualify for grandfathering.

A report prepared by the city's Community Development Director Paula Cohen explained that the city could find no evidence of permits or aerial photographs to prove that the boat lift had once been installed on the Colsons' property.

Usually, code violations are handled by the city's special magistrate, whose decisions can be appealed to Circuit Court.

Because the county handles the city's building and dock permits, the case was turned over to the county for prosecution.

Donald Colson's attorney, Tom Brodersen, says by taking the matter to county court, the city elevated the issue to an unnecessary level.

"We utilized the process with the least exposure and expense to the city," said Cohen.

City Manager Jill Silverboard defends that decision.

"There has been a lot of misinformation floating around. This was not a criminal case. This was a civil citation handled through a municipal prosecution called for under our and the county's codes," said Silverboard.

She admits, however, that "no one was well-served by using this method."

[Last modified March 3, 2007, 19:57:00]

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