By DOTTY NIST
Owners of a Seagrove home rented out for weddings, receptions, and other events has been found in error for repeat violation of county code.
This was the decision of the Walton County Code Enforcement Board at its May 19 regular meeting.
In May 2010, the property owners, Karen and Reppard Bennett, had previously been found in violation for using their rental property, located in a Residential Preservation land use area, in a nonresidential manner, based on the frequency of the events taking place at the home and promotion and advertising of the property as a wedding/events venue. The decision came after presentation of evidence and testimony by several neighbors of the home that wedding events were being held there on a regular basis, with as many as 150 people in attendance, along with disc jockeys, loud music and other disturbances to the neighborhood. In conjunction with the initial finding of violation, the Bennetts were directed to cease and desist the use of the property in a nonresidential manner by August 31, 2010.
The property owners had appealed that code enforcement board decision in Walton County Circuit Court, and in December 2010 Walton County Circuit Judge W. Howard LaPorte had affirmed the board decision.
In April 2011, the Bennetts were charged with a repeat violation for use of the home in a nonresidential manner, resulting in a public hearing at the May 19 code enforcement board meeting.
Neighbors testifying at that hearing stated that events had started up again at the home in March 2011.
“It goes on every weekend, and I would bet my life there will be one this weekend,” said Joe Stanko, who lives next door to the home.
Mary Nielson, owner of rental property in the vicinity of the home, testified that “eight major events” had taken place at the home since Dec. 22, 2010. This was the date the circuit judge’s stay on enforcement of the previous board’s final order was lifted following his decision on the appeal.
“We have been victimized for 2 1/2 years,” Nielson told the board members, calling for a finding of repeat violation and imposition of “the severest penalty.”
Walton County Code Enforcement Officer J.C. Alford said the Bennetts had contacted him in March 2011 to find out what changes they were required to make to the web site advertising the home for rental and had made the changes outlined by the county for purposes of code compliance. He said that at the property owners’ request, he had performed a site inspection, finding no unallowable activity on the property. Alford said that, as a result, he had issued an affidavit of compliance on March 25.
Alford explained that he then received a complaint on the parcel on April 5 involving the home again being used for nonresidential activity. He presented photographs taken by code enforcement and by neighbors displaying events taking place at the home. A notice of violation was issued on April 19, Alford said. He recommended a finding of repeat violation and the imposition of $500 fines daily until such time as the violation was corrected.
The Bennetts were not present due to a prior family obligation, but they were represented by two attorneys, Stephen and Nicholas Gieseler of Port St. Lucie.
At an April 12 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) meeting, the Gieselers had threatened that national property rights advocacy groups would sue the county if the Certificate of Land Use Compliance Ordinance, under consideration at that meeting, were approved. The ordinance included provisions for a certification ensuring that all business were an allowable use within their land use classification—and for standards applying to short-term rental properties located within residential areas. The proposal had been one of a number of attempts by the county over a period of at least two years to address neighorhood complaints over short-term rentals where events take place. The BCC did not approve the measure, instead opting to divide it into two ordinances, which remain to be taken up at a later date.
Steven Gieseler objected to the hearing of the code enforcement case, complaining of lack of sufficient notice to the defendants and denial of their request for rescheduling. His objections were noted, but the hearing proceeded….
Read the full story in the May 26, 2011 edition of the Herald Breeze.