MANATEE -- The rain finally let up last week and the sun's bright appearance that afternoon was matched only by the wide smile of Catherine, 3, as she made a beeline for her backyard playground at home along Amberwynd Circle on Snead Island.
With help from her mother, Nicole DiLorenzo, Catherine inched her way up a small rock climbing wall to gain access to the 3-foot-wide princess tower attached to a standard swing set. The climbing helps Catherine's slow-developing muscles thrive, DiLorenzo said.
But Catherine's days of being the princess of her castle may be numbered because of a feud between neighbors in the affluent neighborhood on Snead Island.
The swing set sits on top of the ground in DiLorenzo's backyard, designed to be non-intrusive because the yard is part of the 25-yard-wide conservation easement separating Snead Island homes from the mangrove shoreline of Terra Ceia Bay.
Catherine's parents say they assumed a small play set was less intrusive than the nearby ground-level concrete and brick paver walkways neighbors have installed over the years through the easement to the shoreline.
According to county code, however, both the play set and the walkways are in violation.
Code states that any walk
ways built in a conservation easement require 3 feet of elevation to allow the natural passage of water and wildlife, as well as to allow sunlight to reach the grass below. The walkways on Snead Island do not meet that code, and now they all may have to be removed after one unhappy neighbor's phone call that first targeted the play set.
According to documents obtained by the Bradenton Herald, code enforcement cited Anthony and Nicole DiLorenzo on June 21, 2013, saying an illegal playhouse had been constructed in a conservation easement. Anthony DiLorenzo said he didn't understand why his daughter's play set was targeted when there were walkways placed in the easement, as well as a fence that the previous owner of a nearby house attempted to have permitted, failed to do so, and constructed anyway.
The DiLorenzos wanted to know why the play set had "become public enemy No. 1" compared to the other code violations in their neighborhood. In April 2014, code enforcement returned and agreed, issuing nine violations against his neighbors.
Anthony DiLorenzo insists that was not his intention when questioning the county.
"Apparently nobody is supposed to do anything in this easement, which is why they don't build these developments anymore," he said. "I just wanted an answer from the county because it felt like selective enforcement, because I was told all of the walkways could stay but my daughter's play set could not."
Manatee County Director of Building and Development Services John Barnot said selective code enforcement doesn't exist in Manatee County. While the issues on Snead Island are now 2 years old, Barnot met with his staff Friday to sort the issues out. He told the Bradenton Herald that every previous and current violation within the neighborhood will be reinspected, cited and given a hearing date.
"Everything that's out there that doesn't meet code is coming out," Barnot said.
Neighbors at war
Barnot said he first became aware of the issues when the homeowners association called the county to complain about an uncooperative homeowner.
"We were told by the homeowner association's architectural review committee that they were mad about Anthony DiLorenzo not getting their permission to plant some trees and get the swing set," said Barnot. "They said he had to get permission and he basically told them no. They found out that there wasn't much they could do about it, so they contacted us."
Barnot said his first reaction was to tell the homeowners association to work it out with their neighbors, and that they didn't want government getting involved.
"Nobody ends up happy when that happens," he said. "And that's what you have now, because everything that is in violation is coming out."
Nicole DiLorenzo said it wasn't her family's intention to get into a battle with her neighbors or the county. The experience led the family to put their home up for sale, "just so I can let my kids play like normal kids. I'm trying to raise two kids and work, and having to battle the county for two years is draining my emotional, physical and intellectual energy, It makes me less present for my children. It's exhausting. I just want the same treatment everyone else is getting. I'm not looking for anyone else to be penalized."
Barnot said the other homeowners would be contacted soon and that he would work to make sure there was fairness across the board. There was some miscommunication to the other homeowners who were told all they had to do was plant saw grass along the walkways to be in compliance. Those homeowners with walkways complied with that request, but Barnot said the full message of requiring those walkways to be elevated was not properly relayed.
"For the most part, they did comply by planting the grass, but the letter of the law has not been followed," he said. "Those walkways have to be elevated and they are not. We do have to grant them access to the water, but it's up to them to follow the code in how that happens. You can't be almost in compliance any more than you can be almost pregnant. It doesn't work that way."
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.