Sarasota Bay structure built on state property without permit

The construction site sits just offshore of Cortez behind A.P Bell Fish Co. and to the east of the last remaining net camp.
The construction site sits just offshore of Cortez behind A.P Bell Fish Co. and to the east of the last remaining net camp.

When Raymond Leslie Guthrie Jr., better known as Junior Guthrie, started construction off the coast of the Cortez shoreline a few months ago, he didn’t think it was a big deal.

Turns out, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection might have something to say about that.

You can’t see it from the main land. You might barely notice it while enjoying a grouper sandwich waterside at Star Fish Company, just a few feet away. The building, which sits on a wooden base of framings and pilings, sits tucked away, hidden behind A.P Bell Fish Co. in Sarasota Bay.

Shannon Herbon, DEP media relations and legislative affairs, says an inspector went out on May 25 to get a visual of the structure and confirm its location. In doing so, a title determination was conducted and the structure was found to be built on sovereign submerged lands owned by the state of Florida.

According to Herbon, building on sovereign submerged state-owned lands requires certain authorizations — in this case, a lease from DEP’s Division of State Lands. No such lease appears to be associated with this property, Herbon says.

Guthrie, who started working on the building with Captain Tom Mora several months ago, says he didn’t think he needed a permit. According to him, the structure has been in his family in one form or another for as long as he can remember.

“This is the third time in my lifetime that I’ve rebuilt it, and I’ve never gotten permission from anyone,” Guthrie said. “I didn’t know I needed permission, to be honest with you.”

Staple of old Cortez

The building was most recently used as a clam-growing facility before a storm destroyed it four or five years ago, Guthrie says. But the structure goes back much further than that — it was originally a net camp.

According to the Florida Maritime Museum’s website, net camps were “small, simple structures (that) were built on pilings and provided ample space to store nets and other fishing gear.” They were a staple of old Cortez before the invention of monofilament nets replaced the cotton nets of old.

The Cortez Village Historical Society’s website says the Guthries are one of the original families in the area, settling in Cortez in the 1880s back when it was called Hunter’s Point.

Junior Guthrie says this net camp goes back to his father and his grandfather. He remembers cutting down pine trees and helping his dad put cypress pilings down. At one point, he says, the structure was nearly 100 feet long. That was when he was 14. He’s 68 now.

Karen Bell of A.P Bell Fish Co. and Star Fish Company doesn’t mind the construction. “I love that he’s building that back up. I wish they were all back. I miss old Cortez,” she said.

Photographs of “old Cortez” adorn the walls of her office — some of them, she says, depict the very net camp in question. A lifelong resident of the area, her father had a net camp in the 1940s. She thinks that Guthrie’s structure dates back to somewhere around that time. Bell doesn’t think he needs a permit, but says she will add the structure to her lease if necessary.

“That was there before 1957, before ’51. It doesn’t belong to the state,” she said.

Bell cites the Butler Act as a reason the structure should be grandfathered in. According to Florida law firm Lewis Longman & Walker’s website, the Butler Act was passed in 1921 and gives the title to an owner who makes a “permanent improvement” to submerged land abutting their property. Fully repealed in 1957, Butler Act Disclaimers are sometimes available through the DEP for permanent improvements that predate the act’s repeal.

When asked if the construction site might qualify for a disclaimer, Herbon said the DEP is still looking into the history of the structure as part of an ongoing investigation and does not have enough information to make a determination at this time.

Skeptics take issue

Still, others are skeptical of the structure’s alleged history. Linda Molto, Cortez resident for the last 32 years, doesn’t recall a net camp being there in recent memory.

“There might have been one there years and years ago, but it’s been long gone. I’ve lived here all these years and I haven’t seen it,” she says, “There’s another net camp there that’s been restored. If you had a net camp 40 years ago, can you just go and rebuild it?”

The net camp Molto is referring to is the last of its kind. Originally built by Joe Capo and Curt Johns, it was all but destroyed by a hurricane in 1995, according to the Florida Maritime Museum. The Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage (FISH) raised funds through private donations and restored the net camp just a few years later. It stands off the coast of the Albert Few-Miller dock, just east of the neighboring construction site.

Both Bell and Guthrie claim that when FISH rebuilt the site, it didn’t acquire a permit because it wasn’t needed. According to them, it was grandfathered in. Bell and Guthrie don’t understand why the same wouldn’t apply to this structure.

Molto, however, doesn’t see it that way.

“If he can do it, can’t we all have a nice little vacation spot on the water? We’re so busy fighting Carlos Beruff (developer of the proposed development on Long Bar Point) that we don’t even see it outside our own door,” Molto said.

Guthrie says he is unsure as to what the building will ultimately be used for, but possibilities include storage, seagrass experiments and growing scallops, in addition to it serving as a general workshop.

When asked whether it was possible to verify the existence of a pre-existing net camp at this location, Kristin Sweeting, museum supervisor for the Florida Maritime Museum, said they didn’t have any information on a previous structure.

According to Herbon, the DEP is currently preparing a Compliance Assistance Offer, which is the first step in the department’s compliance and enforcement process that is typically issued when it finds a possible violation. She says the department will request a meeting with the owner of the structure in order to obtain additional information that will aid its investigation.

After the meeting, she says they will determine if there has been a violation and, if so, what necessary actions must be taken by the owner to return to compliance.

Michael Moore Jr.: 941-745-7031, @MikeWritesUSF