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Lawsuits fray nerves in nirvana of Anna Maria

ANNA MARIA

Harry Stoltzfus is like a lot of other guys rich and successful enough to parachute into Anna Maria. In this tiny island paradise an hour south of Tampa, developers, doctors, lawyers and CEOs like Stoltzfus get to wear baggy shorts and flip-flops. They get to zip around on Vespas and fish all day.

Thing is, they'd never have made it to Anna Maria if they hadn't done some pushing and shoving, if they hadn't fought and won life's big battles, if they hadn't gotten used to getting what they want.

When people find the paradise they've always yearned for, they think it's going to change them, make them happier, make them content. But paradise doesn't change them. They change paradise.

Harry Stoltzfus didn't think about all that. It didn't occur to him that, sooner or later in Anna Maria, a guy's just got to sue somebody.

Phase I: Margaritaville

Anna Maria is famous for a sunny, sea-breeze rapture that compels its Type A's to try really, really hard to do nothing.

That's what Harry Stoltzfus did. He owns Harcon Corp. back in Pennsylvania. It provides boats and barges for big bridge repairs.

Fifteen years ago, he vacationed in St. Pete Beach. He didn't like the clutter and traffic. Someone told him to go south, to check out one of Florida's last great hideaways — the barnacled town of Anna Maria on the northern tip of the island of Anna Maria.

Stoltzfus and his wife, Cathy, drove there the next day. They fell in love with the disheveled beach cottages, the old-salt fishing pier, the absence of high-rises. On their next trip, they rented. Soon after, they bought a condo, then a cottage. They made it their permanent home. Stoltzfus commuted to Pennsylvania.

When he hit his 50s, Stoltzfus looked for ways to commute to Pennsylvania less and live the good life in Anna Maria more. He settled into flip flops. He fly fished. He ate grouper sandwiches. He got a scooter.

He got antsy.

Phase II: Tweaking paradise

Stoltzfus, turning 55, began to think he should give back. He considered how to get more involved in Anna Maria. Maybe he could tutor, or volunteer as an aide at his daughter Molly's school. Or he could do something to help the town.

He'd already spotted a few worms in his paradise. Two other Type A's had bought 15 lots on Pine Avenue, the somnolent half-mile main street. They were building on them, putting up nouveau-rustic storefronts. One was Ed Chiles, son of Florida's former governor Lawton Chiles. The other was Michael Coleman, Chiles' developer partner, who wore ball caps and zipped up and down Pine Avenue on his scooter, always looking for deals.

They all knew each other. Everybody sees everybody pass by on Pine Avenue every 10 minutes. Chiles' daughter bartended at Stoltzfus' favorite hangout, Slim's Place.

But Stoltzfus thought the town fathers had been a little too starry-eyed in approving those boutique storefronts for a homeboy with a famous name. He wrote a letter to the commission, quoted in Anna Maria's weekly paper, The Islander.

Some dissidents admired his letter. He got phone calls: "We could use you downtown." Flattered, Stoltzfus decided to run for the City Commission last year. He had never run for anything. But just by sitting in on two meetings a month (for $400 monthly pay), he could help make Eden even more Edenesque.

To Chiles, whose father and four uncles had planted Anna Maria roots in the '40s, Stoltzfus was just another guy from up north.

"They relax here for a year or two," he said, "and then they think the whole place is going to hell and they want to save us from ourselves."

Phase III: Litigating in paradise

Commissioners had already green-lighted Chiles' plan for a new Pine Avenue. He had told them how he would build two stories, instead of the allowable three, how he'd use cypress and heart pine, how he'd make everything blend in with historic buildings. "No one said anything but 'It looks good,' '' said Mayor Fran Barford.

Along came newly elected Stoltzfus, who said the pine and cypress looked okay, but Chiles had put parking spaces on the wrong side of the sidewalk. A car backing over the sidewalk could hit one of Anna Maria's many strollers and bicyclists.

He proposed a drastic fix: Make Chiles and Coleman put in driveways and parking lots. Sock them with a moratorium on any more approvals.

Chiles felt called out, maligned on his own island. He had grown up to become an Anna Maria figurehead, owner of the town's landmark Sandbar restaurant. He looked and acted a lot like his politician father. He'd sit on a porch on Pine Avenue, sip espresso and greet shoppers. He'd run out on the street to shake hands through car windows.

Now he was looking at moratoriums. Chiles was prepared to litigate Stoltzfus' rear end "into a very big crack."

He and Coleman started by hiring someone to retrieve all of Stoltzfus' e-mails from City Hall. The tiny clerk's office turned itself upside down to produce hundreds of them.

In e-mails to dissident soulmates, Stoltzfus called the mayor a donkey. He suggested creating "gridlock" on Pine Avenue by taking up all the parking spaces. He said someone should sue the city. He'd chip in. He joked about knocking over boutiques with a bulldozer. He described a dream he had. He was aboard a naval destroyer, firing torpedoes at Michael Coleman. "We scored a direct hit midships and Coleman's hoarse shouting came across the water, 'Man the lifeboats! Man the lifeboats!' Music to me ears, it was."

A lawsuit to force Stoltzfus to surrender his hard drive was filed — and a state ethics complaint along with it. Others started a petition for a recall election for misfeasance and malfeasance. Stoltzfus found himself fighting legal skirmishes on three fronts.

He went to see Tampa lawyer Richard A. Harrison. The lawyer asked him, "How much do you want to spend to keep a job that doesn't pay anything?"

Whatever it takes.

So far: $60,000.

Phase IV: Paradise reconsidered

Stoltzfus, his wife, Cathy, and daughter Molly recently got back from a vacation up North. The ethics complaint was thrown out, but a judge ruled that the recall petition was legally sufficient and a recall election was set for Sept. 7. Stoltzfus is spending more to appeal that.

"This is the first time," Cathy said, "I didn't want to come back."

She ran into neighbors who turned away at the grocery. Only one kid on the school bus to Manatee High talked to Molly. Stoltzfus went out for milk and ran into someone he has known for years. He started to say hello. Then he remembered: He saw that guy's signature on the recall petition. He walked on. The Islander printed instructions for people on where to sign up.

Meeting with his lawyer in Tampa meant shortening his commutes to Pennsylvania. When he wasn't there to drive the 30-foot work boat, he had to hire a captain for $5,000 a week. When the boat sat idle, he lost $4,000 a day.

"This is insane," complained Molly. "He studies site plans all day on the computer. It's like he's not here."

For court dates, the family gave up their flip flops for dress-up shoes.

The Stoltzfuses took a close look at little mountain towns on their last trip north. They particularly liked the cottages they saw.

They looked like paradise.

John Barry can be reached at (727) 892-2258 or jbarry@sptimes.com.

Lawsuits fray nerves in nirvana of Anna Maria 08/27/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 28, 2010 10:19pm]

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