Building a chickee turns into bar fight

Published May 7, 2007


Grace Marisi's waterfront restaurant is known as much for its view as its food. But at the moment, the best seats on Sam's outdoor deck go to the birds.

They have found a nice perch atop the stalled construction project. Human patrons won't enjoy the structure until the latest case with Sam's at Hudson Beach and Pasco County is resolved.

Late last year, Sam's started construction of a "chickee hut" on the deck. The hope, Marisi says, was to give live bands and patrons one roof under which to gather.

But all that construction activity quickly attracted attention from those who wondered how Sam's got a building permit to do the work.

Back in 1999, Marisi repaired and reopened the restaurant after a fire gutted it a year earlier. But then federal emergency officials stepped in, saying that the county should have required her to elevate the restaurant.

Marisi ended up paying the county a $10, 000 fine, and county officials said they could not issue additional building permits for Sam's since it did not comply with the flood ordinance.

So did Sam's get a building permit for this new chickee hut project? No, because the restaurant owners didn't need one: They hired a contractor with a crew of Seminoles.

By state law, Seminole and Miccosukee tribes don't need to get building permits when they're constructing chickee huts. Regardless of where they are built.

The spirit of that law was to honor the tribes' history and heritage, said Bill White, owner of Gilligan's Tiki Huts in St. Petersburg. He's actually a member of the Iroquois tribe but says he has a crew of Seminoles.

Fair enough, Pasco County officials told Marisi and White after looking into the matter. But you still need to comply with parts of the flood code.

To do that, the owners need to raise the hut's roof, according to the county and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The roof beams - which happen to be the "lowest horizontal structure" cited in flood codes - need to be at least 20 feet high to meet the requirements, county and federal officials say.

That's about 5 feet higher than they are now. In addition to raising those beams, the owners also need to anchor the pilings and have an engineer certify the project's design.

The hut was slapped with a stop-work order and the owners were told to come up with a timetable to make the changes. So far, the county says, it hasn't heard back from the contractor or the owners.

The intention of the requirements is to help prevent flood damage in part by getting the beam above the potential tidal surge, says senior assistant county attorney Joe Richards. That way it won't get torn loose by the water and risk causing damage somewhere else.

"Sam's is in a unique position because they're right there on the coast, " Richards says.

This chickee hut isn't exactly a dainty gazebo. Its smooth, pine poles are highly visible from Clark Street.

But White says that because chickees have no walls and the rooftops are made of palm fronds, he can't understand the justification for the county's requirements. Water and wind just pass through the frond roof. He says he's seen photographs of Seminole-built chickee huts that withstood hurricanes.

Marisi's lawyer, Roland Waller of New Port Richey, tried to argue with the county that the chickee hut is not technically a "structure" and shouldn't be subject to the rules that govern them. He also chuckled at having an engineer certify their design plans.

"It didn't make a lick of sense to me, " he says.

But is this the sort of thing that's worth a long fight? Marisi says she doesn't think so. She wants to see people, not just birds, enjoying the view, and she blames delays more on White than on the county.

She says she's told him to do what the county asks. White says he will, but he doesn't like it.

"It'll look stupid, " he says but later adds: "The Indians are very peaceful. We just do what we're supposed to do."

Jodie Tillman covers business in Pasco County. She can be reached at (727) 869-6247 or jtillman@sptimes.com.