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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED OCT. 6, 2011
Almost four months after Sarasota County paid Village property owner Chris Brown $2,500 to settle a lawsuit filed concerning 2010 parking assessments, Brown has filed another lawsuit against the county.
The new complaint, filed in the 12th Judicial Circuit, says the county discriminated against Brown by singling him out for 2011 parking assessment hikes on three of his Village properties. At the same time, the lawsuit says, the county lowered the taxes for 74 other properties in the Key’s Parking Improvement District.
“People have just been paying (the parking assessment) every year without questioning it,” Brown told the Pelican Press. “I’m the only one who questioned it.”
This is the third suit Brown has filed against the county since fall 2007, when Brown claimed disputes among county officials — again, over parking issues — delayed the opening of The Hub Baja Grill at the intersection of Avenida Messina and Ocean Boulevard. That delay cost him revenue, he said at the time.
The lawsuit filed Oct. 4 says the 2011 parking assessment for Blu Smoke on Avenida Messina rose from $138.25 to $2,059.65, an increase of almost 1,500%, while the assessments for The Hub and The Cottage rose from $3,351.41 to $6,382.95, a hike of almost 100%.
“Both of those increases occurred with no change in the underlying business nor any concurrent change in similarly situated businesses,” the complaint says.
Among the 74 properties that received lower 2011 parking assessments, the suit says Gilligan’s Island Bar and Grill saw its bill go down about 13%, and the bill for the Daiquiri Deck on Ocean Boulevard decreased about 8%.
Brown’s first lawsuit over parking alleged meddling by County Commissioner Nora Patterson, who lives on the Key; Lourdes Ramirez, then-president of the Siesta Key Association; and then-County Administrator Jim Ley.
When Brown began work on The Hub in 2007, a county zoning official told him he could not get a building permit unless he paid into the Siesta Key Parking Fund. The reason, county staff said, was that he did not have adequate spaces next to the restaurant to support his planned 155-person seating area.
Brown ended up paying the county nearly $18,000 for parking and impact fees before the Zoning and Public Works departments signed off on his building permit application.
Subsequently, according to Brown’s 2007 lawsuit and the latest one, Patterson and Ramirez began making inquiries of county staff regarding Brown’s parking plans for the restaurant. Although zoning officials confirmed their basis for allowing Brown to proceed with construction, Patterson disagreed with their interpretation of the zoning code, the new complaint says.
Then-Zoning Administrator Tina Crawford refused to grant a certificate of occupancy Oct. 31, 2007, for The Hub.
“In later depositions,” the new complaint says, “Ms. Crawford stated that she simply ‘changed her mind’ regarding the correct interpretation of the parking district,” and she denied she was acting under pressure from Patterson, Ramirez and Ley.
In settling that lawsuit in December 2009, the county paid The Hub $35,000, though Patterson, Ramirez and Ley denied wrongdoing.
“I don’t personally know about (the new lawsuit),” Patterson told the Pelican Press Wednesday afternoon. “I don’t know how to comment.”
In March 2009, after months of discussions about Village parking problems, the County Commission amended the zoning code to eliminate the parking requirement for restaurants with less than 2,000 square feet, including The Hub. Brown’s attorney, Morgan Bentley, now of Bentley and Bruning, pointed that out in the second lawsuit Brown filed.
When Brown received his 2010 tax bill, however, he found he had been assessed a $2,107.16 bill for the original parking deficit at The Hub, plus $1,244.25 for the general parking requirement that went back to the original Parking Improvement District plan.
A March 14 County Attorney’s Office memo said Brown’s 2010 tax bill was too high, as a result of the March 2009 ordinance change. The county refunded Brown $2,500 for the improper assessment, which resolved the second lawsuit.
The new suit says that when Brown received his 2011 TRIM notice, he was “stunned that the same (parking) issue could happen again” and asked for an explanation. County officials said they had re-inspected every property in the Siesta Key Parking District, the suit says. “Based on that re-inspection, The Hub, The Cottage and Blu Smoke were all assessed vastly higher assessments for parking,” the suit says.
The lawsuit seeks an admission from the county that its selective enforcement of the parking ordinance violates Brown’s constitutional guarantee of equal protection. It also asks for damages of more than $15,000 to compensate Brown for the assessments it says he should not have had to pay, plus compensatory damages and attorney’s fees.