Manatee County made a mistake. It could cost this homeowner — or all taxpayers

A retired firefighter constructed this massive two-story garage in the quaint Palmetto Point neighborhood with permission of Manatee County late last year much to the displeasure of some of his neighbors.
A retired firefighter constructed this massive two-story garage in the quaint Palmetto Point neighborhood with permission of Manatee County late last year much to the displeasure of some of his neighbors. Bradenton Herald

A neighborhood squabble has reached the level of a quasi-judicial hearing in Manatee County after one resident received county permission to build a 40-by-60-foot steel two-story garage in the quaint and quiet Palmetto Point neighborhood of Colony Bay. However, that approval now appears to have been a mistake.

At issue on a technical level is five feet of difference in setback requirements. At issue on an emotional level is that some neighbors just don't like the way it looks.

Neighbors have been pitted against neighbors since owner Kris Greene started completed construction in December on a structure at 407 51st St. W., Palmetto, that dwarfs nearby single-story homes. Though the county approved the project, Greene appeared in front of Special Magistrate Kelly Fernandez on Wednesday afternoon with a request for a variance after neighbors filed suit against the county.

The county's ordinances require a 25-foot setback and the building is sitting at 20 feet. But in December, county Building Department Director John Barnott said it only applied to commercial buildings. Greene said the structure is strictly for storage, meeting accessory structure guidelines, according to what the county told him.

One or two neighbors fought it every step of the way, but the county said it was legal throughout the process.

Jeanie Jernigan has been the primary outspoken voice against the garage. Jernigan argued she brought the setback issue to the county's attention in July 2017 before the garage was completed.

"The county should have issued a stop order at that time," Jernigan said. "Instead, discretionary decisions were made that violates the county's land development code. Granting a variance would do nothing but validate the county's perceived selective enforcement."

The county is supporting the variance request, arguing the five feet does not create a negative impact when it comes to issues like flooding, drainage and emergency access. Even more importantly, Manatee County planner Jamie Shindewolf said, one item to consider is that the county made a mistake.

"This was due to a building staff error," Shindewolf said.

Greene said he was caught off guard because the county only three months ago signed off on the certificate of completion after a final inspection.

"I know these people are mad at me, but I thought this was done," Greene said. "This has been a nightmare."

The special magistrate will make a decision on the variance request in the next few weeks. If it is denied, the garage will have to be torn down and rebuilt, or somehow have five feet sliced off the front end.

It then begs the question of who is going to pay for it. Neighbor Brian Clooney said he is willing to bankroll a lawsuit against the county if Greene is forced to tear it down on his own dime, but the county may have to admit its mistake and pay for it anyway if the variance request is denied.

Clooney said enough tax dollars have been wasted on this process and pointed out the 15 Manatee County employees alone who had to attend Wednesday's hearing. Other neighbors agreed.

"I don't know who is going to be financially responsible for completing that five-foot variance if they go in favor of of making him move it, but I personally don't want to see my tax dollars go to something for a simple mistake that isn't hurting anyone," said next door neighbor Buffy Brewington. "I prefer my tax dollars go to schools, better roads and first responders."

Brewington said it's only one or two neighbors who oppose the structure.

"There is actually only one who has been very strong and passionate about it," she said. "Others have voiced opinions, but I don't think their feelings have been expressed strongly. I personally like it. I think it's a beautiful building and I'd rather look at a building than someone having junk all over their yard. Kris has said the entire time that he is even going to do more to make it fit into the neighborhood."

Greene confirmed he is going the extra mile in trying to appease the few neighbors against him. He plans to add stucco to the outside of the garage to make it appear like a brick building.

Greene has already spent more than $100,000 into the garage, "And believe me, retired firefighters are not rich."

"I don't know why these people are doing this over five feet of ground that I was told I had approval for," Greene said, noting the stress the situation has caused him and his wife, who was close to tears after Wednesday's hearing.

There was little public comment, but several letters from neighbors were submitted into the record. Fernandez's primary line of questioning had to do when the property owner was notified by the county to the mistake, which Shindewolf said, "After it was already completed."

Fernandez has several options when considering the request for the variance.

Shindewolf said the primary reason for the setback requirement in the ordinance is to allow a vehicle in the driveway without interfering with the sidewalk, "And there is no sidewalk."