TARPON SPRINGS — Veteran inspectors from the state Department of Environmental Protection had never seen anything like it.
Near the northern tip of Anclote Key Preserve State Park, in about 1 ½ feet of water, someone was building a traditional thatched-roof Seminole Indian chickee hut — but on stilts.
The owner, Indian Rocks architect Stephen J. Spencer, hadn't applied for any state or federal permits, either.
He contended that because he hired a member of the Seminole Tribe to build it, the chickee was not subject to any local or state rules.
The DEP said that was wrong.
"The department does not agree that any such exemption exists," DEP officials wrote in a September letter to Spencer and his contractors. "Although chickees constructed by the Seminole Tribe of Florida … may be exempt from requirements of the Florida Building Code, such activities are not exempt from any other state law, such as Florida's environmental laws."
The agency — which still has no idea about the purpose of the structure — ordered a halt to construction. That didn't happen, not until last week. By then the roof was on.
Now the DEP has offered the owner two options: Tear it down, or meet with agency officials to evaluate whether he can still get state permits for the entire project.
Plans recently submitted to the DEP show that this is supposed to be the first of five chickee huts, each 100 feet from the other, connected to each other by a series of docks to form the shape of a "W."
"We're trying to work with them," DEP spokeswoman Shannon Herbon said.
The distinctive chickee hut — palmetto thatch over a cypress log frame — was born of necessity, not art. Seminoles used to live in a type of log cabin. But in the early 1800s, as U.S. troops pursued them through the marshes of South Florida, tribal members came up with the chickee design as a "fast, disposable shelter while on the run," the tribe's website says.
Since those days, though, tribal builders have gotten more creative with their construction, said Carrie Dilley, author of the book Thatched Roofs and Open Sides: The Architecture of Chickees and Their Changing Role in Seminole Society. However, she said, building one over open water does not follow tribal tradition.
"Usually they're built on higher ground away from the water," Dilley said. The other reason building an aquatic one is unusual: "The traditional chickee didn't have a floor."
As for being exempt from rules, she said, "that's complicated."
Most submerged land in Florida is owned by the state, but there are remnant parcels scattered along the coast that have been in private hands for decades. This piece of submerged land near the state park belongs to a trust controlled by Spencer.
DEP records show Spencer wrote a check for $10,000 to chickee hut builder William Johns of Hollywood on July 22, agreeing to pay him an additional $15,000 when the job was completed.
Herbon said the agency's inspectors "haven't gotten a clear answer on the purpose" of building a 20- by 50- by 20-foot hut and its four connected copies.
When reached by phone, Spencer told the Tampa Bay Times he did not feel like talking and hung up. He did not respond to subsequent calls and emails. In 2011, he was sentenced to probation and 30 hours of community service for mishandling asbestos during renovations at an Indian Shores resort.
The contract he signed identified Johns as a "Native American Contractor." Johns also did not respond to requests for comment. Other contractors involved in the project said they could not talk about its purpose or design.
The argument that the Seminole Tribe — legally its own sovereign nation — needs no state permits echoes a ploy by the main character in Susan Orlean's nonfiction book The Orchid Thief, later made into the movie Adaptation.
In 1993, John Laroche worked with three members of the tribe to collect several garbage bags full of endangered ghost orchids from Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, sometimes known as "the Amazon of North America." Laroche figured the Seminoles could not be prosecuted for collecting flowers from a state park. He planned to clone the orchids to make money for the tribe.
But the Seminoles cut off the tree limbs that the orchids were growing on, and that violated the law. Also, Laroche himself was not immune to prosecution for directing the removal of the flowers. All four wound up pleading guilty and getting probation.
Spencer and his builders face no criminal charges. However, according to Herbon, if the DEP decides to let the structure stay put, "they are going to have to fix a few things."
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.