Code Enforcement Board Hears Request to Reduce $476,097 Fine, Other Cases

CODE ENFORCEMENT BOARD members and board attorney Renee Youell (left). Board member John Roberts is not pictured, as he had recused himself from one of the cases (Southern Hybrid Homes). This was due to Roberts’ serving also on the Walton County Planning Commission, since there was a possibility of the property owner coming before that board with an application for the property in the future. (Photo by Dotty Nist)[/caption]

By DOTTY NIST 
Generating a lot of discussion at the May 18 Walton County Code Enforcement Board (CEB) meeting was a request by a Camp Creek area landowner for reduction of a $476,097 code enforcement fine associated with his property.
The county board convened for its regular meeting on that date at the Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) building conference room.
Fines associated with findings of violation by the CEB, if unpaid, become liens on property that must be addressed when the property is sold.
Appearing before the board members, Robert Sterner, owner of seven Sunset Villas units on Camp Creek Road North, said that upon recently putting the property for sale he had learned of the lien. He said he had never lived at Sunset Villas, had lived in Michigan until about three years ago, and had not been aware of everything that had happened with the property during his absence.
According to testimony presented by code enforcement staff, the fine amount was the result of a case presented to the CEB on Dec. 20, 2003, in which a violation was found in connection with a pool at the Sunset Villas property. The board had directed that the violation be corrected within 30 days, with an administrative fee of $97 to be imposed, along with fines of $100 per day to begin and continue if the violation were not corrected within the 30-day time frame.
Bill Williams, code enforcement manager, told the board members that Sterner had been owner of the seven Sunset Villas units at the time of the finding of violation in 2003. Williams had not been employed with the Walton County Code Enforcement at that time.
He said that after being contacted recently by Sterner, he had done an inspection of the property on March 2, 2017, and had certified that the violation had been corrected and that the property was in compliance. Williams said that he had not been contacted by Sterner prior to that date, nor was there any correspondence on record requesting an inspection to verify compliance.
In response to a question from a board member, Renee Youell, attorney for the board, explained that it is not the duty of the code officers to make contact to verify compliance but that of the property owner found in violation.
The matter was complicated by Sterner’s contention that the pool was not located on the Sunset Villas lots (which total 12) but was instead on common property. He said he owned seven of the developed lots and units—but did not own the common property and never had.
Youell responded that Sterner had not contested the CEB’s 2003 finding of violation against him and that his time to appeal the board decision had long passed.
“It’s been ruled on,” Williams agreed. He commented that this was “one of many” instances of old violations on which fines had been accruing for many years, a number of which would be coming before the board at upcoming meetings. He added that he was working on procedures that could be put in place by the department for monitoring of cases in which violations had been found and fines imposed that had not been addressed by property owners.
Sidney Noyes, interim county attorney, brought up a 2013 court case in Walton County Circuit Court concerning a replat of the Sunset Villas property. She said the court had ruled that Sterner had some ownership interest and right of use in connection with the pool property. She acknowledged that the case was a difficult one.
Sterner contended that he had never been notified of the violation. However, Williams presented several signed receipts from notifications sent to Sterner’s address in Michigan. Sterner confirmed that the address was that of his business but said that the people signing the receipts had not let him know about the notices.
A CEB motion to relieve Sterner of his obligation/remove the lien was not seconded, and a subsequent motion to dismiss it failed to carry. A motion to reduce the lien to $2,000 failed as well.
Board member John Roberts observed that he thought Sterner did have “some culpability” in the matter, “but not $476,000 worth.” His motion was to reduce the fine to $10,000, to be paid before or at closing on the property, with the lien to be removed. The motion carried in a split vote, concluding the CEB determination on the matter.
In other action at the May 18 meeting, the board members made a finding of violation in connection with a monument sign for a business located at 11662 U.S. 98 West in Miramar Beach. The business located at the address had changed, and the sign had been changed without an application being submitted for the new signage as is required for businesses on the U.S. 98 Scenic Corridor. The business had been notified, but no one was present to represent it at the board hearing. The board members voted to direct the violation to be corrected within 30 days, with fines of $100 per day to begin after 30 days in the absence of correction of the violation.
The remaining case on the agenda involved alleged violations by Southern Hybrid Homes on J.D. Miller Road in Santa Rosa Beach. These included charges of operation of a business without a development order and unpermitted signage. After testimony by code enforcement officials and property owner Doug Liles, along with some board discussion, the board members approved a request by Noyes to continue the case to the CEB’s June meeting to allow time for an agreement to be worked out to bring the property into compliance.
At the close of the meeting, a proposal under consideration by the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) was discussed briefly that would require the use of a special magistrate for all county quasi-judicial hearings and would do away with the CEB and the Zoning Board of Adjustment, replacing those boards with special magistrates. Some of the members were interested in weighing in on the issue. Noyes suggested that members wishing to do this do so as individuals and not as a board.