Can code enforcement fine you for something they approved ?by WSVN-TV   4 years ago


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If you are going to build on your property, you get a permit and get it approved by the city or county. But what would you do if after approving the construction, the city started fining you for using it? Sounds impossible. To sort it out, here is Help me Howard with Patrick Fraser.

If you grow up in South Florida, odds are you spend lots of time in and on the water. Joel Behar did.

Joel Behar: "I love my boat, and I love the water, and that's why I live here, so I can have the convenience of a boat in the backyard."

That's why Joel bought a house on a canal in North Miami. He then applied to install a lift that would run perpendicular to the seawall.

Joel Behar: "Then the city came out. They approved building permit. We did everything correctly. We even had a final inspection and the permits closed out with the boat on the lift."

Angel Martinez and his son got a permit to install a similar lift a few feet from Joel. They were approved.

Angel Martinez: "Yes, I was very happy until the problems started."

The problem: About a year after both men built their properly permitted lifts, North Miami cited them.

Brian Zappulla: "And I get a letter in the mail saying I am violating Section 29. I don't know, saying the fines are going to start, I need to get my boat off the lift."

Angel started getting $100 fines because he had his boat on his boat lift. Angel countered, 'You approved the lifts.'

Brian Zappulla: "And they told me I was confused as to how I can park, and I told them that no, they were the ones who were confused."

And talk about confusion at City Hall. While they were being cited by code compliance for putting their boat on their lift, Brian Zappulla put in a request to build the exact same lift the city was telling Angel and Joel they could not use.

Brian Zappulla: "This is what was approved by the city and it shows the dock, so this is the build out, this is the sea wall."

To make sure the city knew Brian's boat would be perpendicular to the seawall, he drew the boat on the application.

Brian Zappulla: "I don't think they can complain with the way we have permitted it. We have described every last detail about how we wanted this thing to be built."

Brian's lift with a boat on it was approved at the same time Joel and Angel were told their boat on the lift was illegal.

Brian Zappulla: "It's really sad, it's really sad. I have lost sleep over it."

Well, Howard, can a city approve a project and then declare it illegal?

Howard Finkelstein: "Legally, in some cases, a government can make a mistake and force you to correct it. But if the mistakes are unconscionable, the law calls that equitable estoppel, meaning the city approved three separate lifts. Legally and morally, they just have to live with this mistake."

I met with the city of manager of North Miami and his staff. Aleem Ghany said the confusion came because the lifts and boat cannot protrude more than 25 feet into the canal that is 100 feet wide.

That means the lifts are legal, but since their boats protrude past the lift, that makes it illegal. The city officials at the meeting were not aware, until I told them, that the building department had just approved Brian's lift with the boat on it, the same lifts Code Enforcement was citing Joel and Angel for.

Ghany told me, "I am going to do my best to find an amicable solution." And he is trying.

Joel has been asked to request a text amendment from the city that will allow the boat and the lift just as they are. The North Miami City Council would ultimately have to approve it. The fee for Joel to apply for the amendment is $3,000, but the city has agreed to waive the fee because of everything that has gone on.

Howard Finkelstein: "This is where politicians need to step in. These are taxpayers that relied on the word of the city, and they shouldn't be punished for trusting the city, and should be allowed to use their boat lifts."

It's all Joel is asking for.

Joel Behar: "I just want to be able to use what I have, what I have a permit for. I want to be able to keep my boat behind my house."

Now, if you are wondering why they can't put lifts parallel to their property, the lots are too small for that. Anyway, Joel is putting in the application to allow the three people to use their boat lifts. We will keep an eye on it and let you know what North Miami does.

Don't have a boat? Can't float and want to build a moat around your problem? Dock it with us. We will work parallel with you to give you a lift, legally. With this Help Me Howard, I'm Patrick Fraser, 7News.