HOLMES BEACH — Treehouse owners Lynn Tran and Richard Hazen may soon get their wish — it looks like their case is on trial.
Manatee Circuit Court Judge Charles Sniffen ordered attorneys representing treehouse owners and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) to attend a case management session on Monday August 8 in order to set a trial date.
In the December 2018 lawsuit filed by Tran and Hazen against the City of Holmes Beach and the FDEP, the couple seek a temporary injunction to stop city and state leaders from removing the two-story beachfront structure. which they built in 2011 at Angelinos Sea Lodge, 2818 Ave. E. and to stop the accumulation of fines against owners.
Tran and Hazen’s case against the city seeking an injunction was dismissed in July 2021, but their case against the FDEP continues. At a hearing on July 27, Sniffen denied the FDEP’s motion for summary judgment because an amended complaint had already been filed that superseded the one that was the subject of the case that day.
Tran and Hazen’s attorney, Bruce Minnick, called for the case to go to trial rather than get entangled in other motions in circuit court.
Sniffen advised both sides to figure out how they wanted to move forward and prepare to pick a trial date for the case.
The structure has long been a contested issue between owners and city and state officials. Tran and Hazen argue that before building the structure, they went to the city’s building department and asked if a treehouse would require a permit and were told it wouldn’t. They then built the structure on the beach in front of their home and rental property, supporting it with Australian pine and telephone poles disguised as tree trunks.
Later, they learned that not only did they need a building permit, but that the tree house had also been built partly on the erosion control line, requiring a permit from the FDEP.
The couple applied for FDEP permits but were refused. Department attorneys argue that Tran and Hazen were given the opportunity to appeal the denial and did not pursue that route despite being requested to extend the appeal time twice, which was granted.
In 2013, the treehouse was the subject of a city code enforcement board hearing where it was determined that after-the-fact permits would be required or the structure should be removed. The couple took the results of the board’s hearing to Manatee County Circuit Court and Florida’s Second District Court of Appeals. Both courts upheld the council’s decision on the treehouse. A 2016 special hearing by a code enforcement magistrate in the city resulted in a $50 fine that has accrued since July 22, 2015, when the Second District Court’s decision was made. That fine is over $125,000 with additional fines and legal fees piling up daily for Tran and Hazen.
When the couple applied for permits after the fact with the city, the requests were denied. Former Holmes Beach building official Jim McGuinness reviewed the treehouse during his tenure with the city and determined that the structure could not be brought up to current building codes. City leaders began exploring the option of legally ordering the treehouse’s destruction in 2018, a case that is still pending in Manatee County Circuit Court. A temporary stay was ordered in this matter in March 2021, which expires on August 31 to give the parties time to try to work together on a way forward.
A third treehouse-related case is also pending in circuit court to determine the constitutionality of the city codes. This case is due for a hearing at the end of September.