At 9:30 a.m. Thursday, attorney James D Thaler, Jr. began hearing cases as Gulfport’s new Special Magistrate. His inaugural case was a combination of mixed signals, misunderstandings and a business owner who is leaving the city.
It was certainly an inauspicious start for the Special Magistrate, with the case of Deno Crawford and his business, Urgent Tree Service of 2205 52nd St. S.
In the chambers at City Hall, Crawford and property owner Lyta Reichbach of Gizmo Property Management in St. Pete Beach appeared before Thaler. They were the only violators to stand at Thursday’s hearing.
The pair was called on four code infringements; two assigned to each party:
Two violations of City Code 7-2, for construction without permit fees related to a metal enclosure built against one of the main structures; electrical work/junction box installed outside of rear fence. There was also plumbing water lines installed on the exterior of one structure; exterior sheathing replaced on the structure, and a new covered porch framed with a metal roof attached.
The second pair of violations concerned Code 22-5.10 (j)—Outdoor Sales and Displays. Urgent Tree Care had several large vehicles parked on the property, which sits across 52nd Street from a gas station. On the side of the building, there is a large wooden fence. Code requires the equipment, such as a wood chipper and earth mover, to stay behind the fence and not visible from the street.
Crawford corrected and complied with City Code 7-2 prior to the hearing and was assessed a fine of $374.50 on Thursday. Gizmo was also fined $374.50 for the first violation.
Code enforcement officer Bruce Earling suggested Crawford be found guilty of the first two charges, which Crawford resisted, suggesting he plead “no contest.”
“It just sounds better,” Crawford said.
“These are civil proceedings,” Thaler replied. “With civil cases, people are either liable or responsible. ‘Guilty’ is usually reserved for people put in handcuffs. We don’t have that around here.”
The second violation was not corrected. Crawford said that he had difficulty keeping his equipment behind the fence at all times.
Five years ago, Crawford received a business license by the city to operate Urgent Tree Service. For years, he had no trouble. Starting in 2010, Crawford began to get violations on the visibility of his equipment.
Crawford said it is necessary to use this equipment to conduct his business. With the regular code violations, it has become difficult to continue to do business in Gulfport. His argument was that since the city awarded the license, they must have been aware of what type of equipment he would be using.
“City of Gulfport gave me a license to have a tree service,” Crawford said. “When you have a tree service, you have to have equipment trucks. It’s a Catch-22.”
“They gave me a license for the last five years,” Crawford said. “Now they say I cannot have trucks on the property. I have kept my license up to date every year.”
“You are saying because they (the city) issued you a permit to run a business out of that location for a tree service,” Thaler asked, “and because you have been storing things there, that they allowed you to operate in this way as an exception?”
“You could have asked for special permitting,” Thaler said.
“They never contacted me about that,” Crawford responded.
Earling insisted the pattern of code violations were consistent.
“Mr. Crawford and Gizmo both had been sent numerous violations in the past,” Earling said, “in regards to storing roll-offs, trailers and trucks outside the fence.”
“No doubt the city was probably remiss in letting him continue to put heavy equipment behind the fence,” Earling said. “He was never in compliance. He would be in compliance for a few days or a week then he would be right back, putting those trailers and trucks”
“It would generate numerous complaints from residents,” Earling added.
Instead of fining Crawford and his landlord for every day of non-compliance, Thaler charged each defendant $374.50 to cover city and Magistrate expenses, with the stipulation Crawford would bring his business up to code within 60 days. The fine was in addition to the $374.50 both Crawford and Reichbach were each assessed for the other pair of violations.
Crawford agreed, since he was planning to move from the property soon anyway.
“Are you staying in Gulfport?” Thaler asked him.
“Oh no,” Crawford responded.
He will be moving to a location off 49th Street, adding that it was too much hassle for him to stay in the city. “It will be right next to Gulfport, though.”
“I hate to lose any kind of business in Gulfport,” Thaler said before adjourning.
Crawford’s appearance was not the kind that will be common for the Special Magistrate, according to city officials.
“That was an unusual case,” said Community Development Director Fred Metcalf. “Most people will come into compliance before it gets to this point. It is an effective tool.”
According to Metcalf, the program has already had the intended effect—keeping code violations at a minimum.
The next Special Magistrate hearing, if there are any cases to hear, will be August 23, 2012, 9:30 a.m. at Gulfport City Hall, located at 2401 53rd St. S. For more information, call (727) 893-1000 or visit mygulfport.us.