110 W. New York Ave.
DeLand, FL 32720
posted Aug 7, 2014 - 11:15:44am
DeLand mayoral candidate Pat Johnson is no stranger to City Hall. His introduction came more than two decades ago, when Johnson worked for DeLand 1989-91 as a police officer.
More recently, from the time he opened Pompano Pat’s on South Woodland Boulevard in 2006, Johnson has been wrangling with city officials over zoning and codes.
Now, Johnson has taken his personal experience on the campaign trail, in a challenge to incumbent Mayor Bob Apgar. Johnson’s platform includes a call to revamp DeLand’s code enforcement.
“It’s very evident that they selectively enforce, abuse power and authority, and can be very malicious and vindictive when they want to be,” Johnson said.
DeLand Assistant Manager Dale Arrington strongly disagreed with Johnson’s characterization of the department, which is one of several departments she oversees. In fact, Arrington said, on two key code-enforcement cases at Pompano Pat’s, the city worked out compromises with Johnson, after life-safety concerns were satisfied.
The city allowed Pompano Pat’s to keep a portion of a deck that had been built without a permit, and reached an agreement to allow some merchandise displays on the sidewalk in front of his business.
“We try real hard to find ways to help people around here,” Arrington said.
In the beginning, Johnson’s motorcycle sale and repair shop at 2075 S. Woodland Blvd. required a special exception because of the property’s zoning.
The DeLand City Commission granted the special exception for Pompano Pat’s in April 2006, with five conditions that regulated the landscaping, vehicle-display area and truck access. Johnson was also required to install fire sprinklers and keep vehicle repair separated from sales.
After that approval, however, Johnson’s fling with City Hall turned into head-butting.
In 2008 and 2009, Johnson was cited for displaying his merchandise in places where it was not permitted, according to the city’s records. In 2009, he was also cited for not having an occupational license to sell guns and, in 2013, he and the city went round and round over signage at Pompano Pat’s.
But Johnson’s biggest and longest-lasting run-in with the City of DeLand Code Enforcement Department came when he built the deck, with no building permit, in an area where he was supposed to have a 30-foot landscaping buffer.
The city was especially concerned, Arrington said, about the portion of the deck that was elevated over a slope on the property.
“Because there was no engineering on this, too many motorcycles and too many people could have gotten on that deck, and it could have come crashing down,” Arrington said.
The deck dispute started with a complaint about Johnson’s display of motorcycles on the sidewalk and in the landscape-buffer area.
In April 2009, in a letter to the city, Johnson said two attorneys had reviewed his special exception, with special attention to this clause: “... vehicle display is permitted only on the existing concrete area adjacent to the building.”
Johnson said the attorneys had found that “the term ‘adjacent’ used at the end of the sentence, does not clearly define exact placement for vehicle display.” He also included a definition of the word “adjacent,” copied from the dictionary.
Johnson also threatened to sue, and suggested he might have damages for harassment and business interruption, due to dealing with the code-enforcement actions.
The back-and-forth continued. Finally, in June, Assistant City Manager Arrington visited Pompano Pat’s to evaluate the situation.
Johnson said the site visit didn’t go well.
“She ends up gigging me for 10 other violations,” he said. “I clearly showed them they were incompetent, and that’s how they responded.”
While at Pompano Pat’s, Arrington saw the deck. She also learned, from radio commercials, that Pompano Pat’s was selling guns without a city license to do so.
The city said Johnson had built the deck without a permit, and in a location where his special exception required him to maintain landscaping.
Arrington summarized the problems in a letter to Johnson’s attorney. Arrington also let Johnson’s attorney know that the city would hire a different attorney to replace the city attorney on the Pompano Pat’s case, because Johnson had told Arrington “City Attorney Darren Elkind held a personal grudge against him.”
On June 24, 2009, Johnson was issued a notice of violation for the deck, and was given time to come into compliance with the codes.
Johnson tried to apply for a building permit in July, but the permit was denied because of the required “vegetative buffer.”
Finally, in October, at a hearing before DeLand’s special magistrate for code enforcement, Johnson was found in noncompliance, and was given until Jan. 21, 2010, to correct the situation by either removing the deck, or going through a process to try to have his special exception amended to allow the deck.
By Jan. 5, nothing had changed. Johnson sent City Manager Michael Pleus a chatty email about activities during the holiday season, and mentioned a meeting with Pleus.
“I know our meeting was an informal chat, and as you indicated ‘you can’t break any rules’. However, I was expecting some sort of response after our meeting,” Johnson wrote.
Pleus replied with a long clarifying email Jan. 6, and reiterated that Pompano Pat’s would either have to come into compliance or begin the process of trying to get the special exception amended.
Johnson responded the same day. “I have scheduled two employees this Sunday to come in on their day off, and take the deck down. This should end the matter in its entirety,” he wrote.
But, the deck wasn’t fully removed. Pompano Pat’s cut about 6 feet off the deck, Johnson said. Because the remaining deck wasn’t elevated and didn’t present a safety hazard, Arrington said, the city dropped the matter.
Then, after a separation of almost three years, Johnson and code enforcement again butted heads in 2013 over an illegal display of flags, banners and a sandwich-board sign. The city had received a general complaint about the clutter of illegal signs along the roadway entrances into town, Arrington said. Pompano Pat’s was one of many businesses visited at that time by code-enforcement officers intent on getting the offending signage removed.
Johnson was warned in September about illegal flags, banners and sandwich boards, and was told to remove them. He did, then Pompano Pat’s was given a notice of violation again in October, after he repeated the same offense. Again, he removed the signage in question.
Another battle involved Pompano Pat’s display of motorcycles on the sidewalk in front of his business. Johnson claimed the sidewalk belonged to the person who built the building, not to the city. Eventually, he was given permission to use the concrete strip as a display area for a limited number of motorcycles, since the sidewalk in front of his business is not contiguous with other sidewalks.
In the city’s view, the various codes and regulations keep people safe, and keep DeLand looking good, for the benefit of residents and businesses alike.
In Johnson’s view, however, the rules threaten people’s livelihoods.
“If we can’t display our merchandise,” he said, “we will close, and eight people will lose their jobs.”
Arrington said while it is obvious why life-safety codes that make buildings safe should be enforced, there is also good reasoning behind codes that assure DeLand is well-planned and attractive.
“These rules are rooted in the desire to maintain high property values; and without these rules or appropriate maintenance standards, the city could fall into blighted conditions and our economy would suffer as customers to businesses decrease and residents move out,” she said.
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