Erika and Achim Ginsberg-Klemmt have a history of fighting against perceived injustices.
The Sarasota couple, who spent more than a decade living around the world on a boat before settling in the area in 2005, has taken on adversaries as large as the French government in the past, successfully challenging the country’s entry procedures when they believed the rules were unfair. So, when the city of Sarasota denied their application this year to build a mooring field on the property they owned, it didn’t take long for the couple to decide to push back.
“We have a little bit of a fighting spirit in us,” Erika Ginsberg-Klemmt said. “It’s kind of kept (us) going.”
In 2010, as the Ginsberg-Klemmts began investing in real estate, the couple targeted roughly three acres of underwater property adjacent to the Lawrence Pointe and Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota condominiums. After buying the adjoining parcels for $19,200, they reached out to their new neighbors to see if they were interested in working together as the Ginsberg-Klemmts sought to construct a mooring field. Although the neighboring property owners showed no interest, the two forged ahead with their plans.
From the beginning, the city made it clear that developing something on the newly acquired property would be a challenge for the Ginsberg-Klemmts. A meeting with former city Senior Planner Harvey Hoglund painted a dire picture for their prospects of building a mooring field, Erika Ginsberg-Klemmt remembers.
“He just said, ‘We’ll never let you do anything there,’” she said. “‘It’s just that simple. There’s no way you’ll ever do anything.’”
The issue, he said, was that the city only allowed docks — and, therefore, a mooring field — as an accessory use for a property. Because the Ginsberg-Klemmts owned water property but not the “uplands” property adjacent to it, the mooring field would be considered a primary use and the project would not be allowed.
Gretchen Schneider, the city’s general manager for planning and development, said the code was written that way to protect the rights of neighboring property owners. If the mooring field were allowed as a primary use, people who docked their boats on someone’s water property would be forced to exit through other peoples’ land.
“People bring their boat here,” Schneider said. “Where do they go when they tie their boat off? How do they get to land? It doesn’t necessarily make sense.”
The Ginsberg-Klemmts take issue with various aspects of the city code. They believe the city’s other mooring fields haven’t been held to the same standards as their own; they object to the idea that they should lose development rights just because their formerly upland property is now underwater; they don’t understand why their two properties are zoned differently; and they don’t agree that the terms “dock” and “mooring field” should be used interchangeably.
After an initial rejection from city staff, Achim Ginsberg-Klemmt — who once wrote a textbook on anchoring boats — decided to redesign the proposed nine-mooring field. The city code defines a dock as “any structure, whether ﬁxed or ﬂoating, secured on or by a piling … which is designed for or capable of being used to moor a water vessel.” The new design uses four pilings to secure boats in the field but does not constitute a “structure,” the Ginsberg-Klemmts believe.
“We don’t have any structures held by pilings,” Ginsberg-Klemmt said. “(The city) has no right to deny us this today.”
The city disagrees. Schneider said that no matter what form it took — whether it were a mooring ball, a piling or a post — anything used to moor a boat would be considered a dock, per the city code. If the City Commission or Planning Board wanted that definition or some other zoning regulation changed, it could request a zoning text amendment. Schneider said the current rules were indicative of the will of city residents to date.
“As zoning codes evolve, it’s a community document,” Schneider said. “This is not something the community has expressed an interest in.”
Schneider said she could not speak to the specifics of how other mooring fields in the city came to be, including the 50-mooring Marina Jack facility on city-owned property. Still, even if it did not have to go through the building permit process, she said that the Marina Jack mooring field saw significant public vetting before gaining approval.
The Ginsberg-Klemmts have reached out to commissioners and other city staff members, hoping for some action, but have not heard back from anyone yet. As they have tried to work through their dispute with the city, they have also had to fight a battle on another front.
Despite receiving a permit for the mooring field from the state Department of Environmental Protection, the neighboring property owners have filed multiple suits disputing the ownership of the Ginsberg-Klemmts’ land. The couple bought one of their parcels from the previous developer of the Lawrence Point condominium, the current owners of which have attempted to thwart applications to construct the mooring field.
The city approved a Lawrence Pointe property owner’s 1994 application to build a dock on land the Ginsberg-Klemmts claim he never owned — a dock that still sits on the waterfront today, on the property the couple purchased. Both Lawrence Pointe and the Ritz-Carlton owners are attempting to restrict access to the dock. Litigation is still ongoing, with the next hearing scheduled for late September.
The couple is driven to overcome the litany of challenges in their path. Achim Ginsberg-Klemmt said operating a boat harbor was both a dream of his and an appealing business venture that could support his family. Additionally, he said, the couple feels that this is a righteous cause — that they’re fighting against an unjust regulation that needs to be addressed. He said that unchallenged zoning officials, unwilling to accommodate applicants seeking to build, creates a larger problem and makes the city less appealing.
“We have civil rights as owners, and I don’t want them to be taken away by some bureaucrat who thinks he’s a big shot,” Achim Ginsberg-Klemmt said.
They’ve devoted much of their free time to issues stemming from this property, and they’re unafraid to charge forward.
“We just decided to slate time and energy to this,” Erika Ginsberg-Klemmt said. “Other people do … I don’t know what they do, make model airplanes?”
“Drive Ferraris,” Achim added.
For the Ginsberg-Klemmts, their pastime has become taking on the local government.
“My husband and I have always been people who have done some crazy things,” she said.
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