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Beach Baptist, town trying to resolve issues

September 4, 2019
By JORDAN HESTER (jhester@breezenewspapers.com) , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

A Beach church slapped with an $85,000 code enforcement lien for failing to fix alleged compliance problems dating back to 2016, says it is looking to have the fine levy imposed by the Town of Fort Myers Beach dismissed or reduced.

Officials with Beach Baptist, ordered to pay a $75-per-day fine following a hearing before a special magistrate in May of 2016, say the church has been working to resolve its issues with the town and the Fort Myers Beach Fire Department.

"Beach Baptist Church has spent years and funds on plans and permitting that seem to have slipped through the cracks. We're aiming to have the lien dismissed or reduced through the special magistrate, but we aren't considering community fundraising at the moment; we'd like to come to an amicable resolution," said Pastor Shawn Critser.

The town wants to make sure everything is on the books and in order.

The original issue, a fire compliance failure during an inspection for a storage unit that was converted into a bedroom, has caused fines to creep to nearly $85,000. The town placed a lien on the property, with the fine continuing per day until the compliance issues are resolved.

Running parallel to the code enforcement issue, is a disagreement between the town and the church as to the facility's zoning and related uses allowed for that zoning.

"We've received complaints from the church's neighbors about its uses, be it RV use or summer camps, and we feel like the original zoning designation doesn't match up with the variety of current property uses," Roger Hernstadt, Town Manager of Fort Myers Beach, said.

This has led to the church and Town disagreeing on what uses the current zoning of "Place of Worship" has.

Regardless of past issues or ongoing concerns, the town Fort Myers Beach wants the church to apply for a special exception for the church's current land use.

"It's just a matter of keeping everything in the open and public; records have to be kept in a specific way, and that seems to have been a significant obstacle for this instance," Hernstadt said.

This would bring all of the issues, both with the original compliance complaint and the property uses, up to date and under less scrutiny since things would be current, he said.

Critser said the town is requesting a special exception for something the county previously "grandfathered," when zoning and land use changes were made.

"The county originally had us grandfathered in for a 'religious activity' site, which is essentially just an expanded 'religious worship' zoning application. It allows for a wider use, which included the RV spaces for traveling guests or worshipers," Critser said.

The Town took over zoning codes and regulations in 2018. The Fort Myers Beach Fire Department took over from Bonita Fire in March 2018.

Special exceptions, like the one the Town is requesting Beach Baptist apply for, would expand its special uses for the property and allow it to continue operating as intended. Such requests, though, have to go through the Local Planning Agency, the board that goes over land use changes and updates, and then get pushed through to a public hearing with Town Council.

The issue has some history, going back a number of years. Here's the most recent update from this year:

- Last Special Magistrate hearing was held on June 20 with the town telling the hearing officer and Shawn Critser that there are no permits or applications standing for the property.

- The Magistrate had the lien process paused with a 30-day hold put on it so progress could be made.

- Plans were drawn, according to Fort Myers Beach Fire Department approval, and were submitted to the Town of Fort Myers Beach after this meeting, according to Critser.

History

Origin

2004

The retreat center at Beach Baptist has bathroom in back end of it. Pastor Shawn Critser decided to turn it into a caretaker quarters. They opened a doorway to previous storage space, turned it into a private space.

There are already 72 beds in the dormitory style living area, so the change made sense, church officials said.

The Town of Fort Myers Beach says it has no application or permits on file for this change in blueprint.

History of complaint

2016

During a fire inspection, plans were compared and it was revealed the new room didn't have a firewall between it and the kitchen. Previous code compliance officer required a permit, didn't know what zoning was for the retreat center. Fire department and Lee County (which handled zoning prior to Fort Myers Beach bringing it in-house) agree zoning is correct for dormitory style living. Matt Noble, town staff at the time, brought during the discussion that the use was zoned properly, and that the county was well aware of what was zoned and officials thought it to be designated a "religious activity" site. County allowed 4 RV hookups as well.

Kara Stewart, previous community director, approved a lien on the property to the tune of $85,000 as the church was going through compliance, claiming the church wasn't moving forward. A special magistrate hearing included county, town officials, fire council, and zoning staff issues necessary to get the plans up to date and approve permitting for the room. Parties involved agreed to move forward as long as proper permitting and usage were met.

Plans had been submitted and turned down since this meeting, according to Pastor Shawn Critser.

Updated, finalized plans were submitted in November of last year, which made its way through town staff for approval, until Bonita Springs Fire Department (then still involved) denied it on grounds of needing an extra fire exit and extra sprinkler heads. Critser says the fire exit is in current plans to add.

At the last Magistrate meeting in June, the special magistrate and Shawn Critser are told there are no permits of applications standing for the property. The special magistrate has lien paused with a 30- day hold put on it so progress could be made.

Plans are drawn, according to fire department approval, and are submitted to the county after this meeting, according to Critser.

Critser says the town can't find permit in paper and so has applied lien again after the 30-day freeze period. Contractor for Shawn Critser is said to provide application receipt, canceled check, and permitting number.

"There were no permits sought for changes for the property originally. Things have to be done in order so that they can be on the books and proper," according to Roger Hernstadt, Town Manager for Fort Myers Beach.

Current Argument

Town has declared the site is a "place of worship;" officials want a new special exception for the site for public approval to classify it as "religious activity site," has held up lien and its per diem fees.

Current Concern

"Beach Baptist Church has spent years and funds on plans and permitting that seem to have slipped through the cracks. We're aiming to have the lien dismissed or reduced through the special magistrate, but we aren't considering community fundraising at the moment; we'd like to come to an amicable resolution," said Pastor Shawn Critser.

The Town stands by the premise there has been no formal permit of note filed for the use nor zoning of the property.

 
 

 

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