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Divided by a fence, Coquina Key waterfront neighbors take it to court

ST. PETERSBURG — Joseph and Patricia Chiandusse have watched the dolphins and boaters in Big Bayou from their Coquina Key home for 32 years. The view and the breezes have been there so long, they are like part of their property, the couple say in court papers.

Lately, though, their view is of their neighbors' 6-foot vinyl fence.

The barrier went up in early June, weeks after the Chiandusses filed an injunction in Pinellas Circuit Court to prevent their neighbors, Michael and Terry Grannis, from doing so. A judge denied the injunction.

The dispute has pit neighbor against neighbor and has made its way to city codes officials, who told the Grannises the fence was legal. The Chiandusses are asking a judge to force the Grannises to take the fence down.

"When you buy on the water, you buy to enjoy the water," said Joseph Chiandusse, 59, a retired long-distance truck driver. "I didn't buy a house and pay it off to look at a fence."

The properties are on Coquina Key Drive SE, on a nub of land on the northern tip of the island. They are separated diagonally like pieces of pie, which city officials say is unique in a city where waterfront homes are usually side by side. Only by looking over their neighbors' lawn can the Chiandusses see the glimmering water.

On its face, the Chiandusses' argument is not an easy one to uphold in court, said Darryl C. Wilson, a professor of real estate law at Stetson University College of Law. Generally speaking, courts do not consider a view from a property part of it, Wilson said. That was sometimes so under Old English law, but not today.

One solution for homeowners who wish to ensure a view is to buy all the property between their home and the view.

"There's nothing that I can see that would stop this person from having a right to build a fence on his property," Wilson said.

Before they built the fence, the city codes department provided the Grannises with a letter telling them it was fine as along as the fence was built to a certain height. They built one that is 6 feet tall.

The Grannises' fence "is flat-out permitted" by city code, said city zoning official Philip Lazzara. "You have a property owner who wants to be able to look across their neighbors' property," he said, "and the code does not guarantee them the right to do that."

The Chiandusses' attorney, Thomas McGowan, argues in court papers that the code book is vague in its rules for waterfront fences, and that the rules do not work well for irregularly shaped yards.

Moreover, the fence was built atop the Chiandusses' sprinkler system. McGowan is arguing that his clients have a right to the land because their sprinklers have been there so long.

The Chiandusses also say their neighbors built the fence to hide an unsightly property. Various neighbors have called the city's codes department to complain about it, they say.

"It's really a revenge fence," McGowan said.

The Grannises, who have owned the property since 1998 and are representing themselves, say in court papers that their neighbors are only concerned for their home's resale value, a claim the Chiandusses deny.

The Grannises did not return phone calls for comment.

Like some other neighbors on the cul-de-sac, Tad Johnson, who has lived next to the Chiandusses for five years, said the fence takes away his view of the water, too.

"It's an unfortunate situation," said Johnson, who is not involved in the court dispute. "It certainly does impact the overall ambience of the island. It's not attractive."

City Council member Karl Nurse tried to mediate the dispute before the court action was filed. He told the Chiandusses that the city code is not on their side.

This isn't the first time the Chiandusses have asked a judge to interpret the city code. In 2004, an appeals court denied a claim that the city was wrong in citing Joseph Chiandusse for parking his semitrailer truck outside his home. Chiandusse had argued that because he was away most of the time on long-distance drives, he was parking temporarily, but the judge disagreed.

The latest case is scheduled for a hearing Sept. 28.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Luis Perez can be reached at (727) 892-2271 or lperez@sptimes.com.

Divided by a fence, Coquina Key waterfront neighbors take it to court 09/03/11 [Last modified: Monday, September 5, 2011 1:57pm]
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