In the Panhandle town of Destin, which bills itself as "the world's luckiest fishing village," one of the most popular seafood restaurants belongs to a man with the same name as the town.
Dewey Destin's Seafood Restaurant perches on a pier that juts into the azure waters of Choctawhatchee Bay. The menu includes fried shrimp, hush puppies and stunning sunsets.
But according to the state Department of Environmental Protection, Destin's restaurant is not supposed to exist. It was built without permission over what the DEP contends is taxpayer-owned submerged land.
The DEP has tried to evict the decade-old restaurant. Destin has fought back by claiming his ancestors established a historic claim to the property dating to before Florida was a state.
Now, Destin says, the DEP is close to a deal that would let him stay put — setting a statewide precedent for the use of millions of acres of waterfront land. All a DEP spokeswoman would say is that Destin's case is still pending.
The fact that Destin's restaurant is still there irks next-door neighbor Barbara Lafaye, who can't stand the trash that winds up around her nearby dock, not to mention the trespassing customers and their dogs.
Lafaye contends that Destin —who helped write the city charter, served on the City Council off and on for 30 years and was recently elected unopposed to the School Board — has used his political connections to persuade the DEP to back off. Destin says Lafaye is just pursuing a vendetta.
Lafaye's attorney, Jill Crew, contends Destin used his pull with state Sen. Don Gaetz, the incoming president of the state Senate, to twist arms at the DEP. Not true, say Gaetz and his chief of staff, Christopher Clark.
"We treated it like a normal constituent request," said Gaetz, R-Destin. According to Clark, that means helping the constituent find "the different options and how to work it out."
Clark said his boss didn't agree with state law on what's allowed on state submerged property, which is what tripped up Destin.
By law, submerged land belongs to the taxpayers. Anyone who wants to use it must sign a lease and pay rent to the state. Leases are restricted to such things as docks and marinas that have to be on the water. That way, state-owned coastline doesn't get cluttered with frivolous uses.
Destin, then in the commercial fishing business, leased the land from the state more than a quarter-century ago to build a dock where he could unload his boats, paying about $300 a year. That 1985 lease specifically said he could not build a restaurant there. Each time the five-year lease expired, he renewed it.
But, in 2000, the state banned the type of nets that Destin's fleet used, effectively putting him out of the fishing business. He opened a bait shop, getting state permission to make a small alteration in the dock. Then, according to his company's website, "Dewey's knowledge of fish and how it is best served led to expanding the Destin market into this small, specialized restaurant."
"He just barreled ahead, banged up a few sheets of plywood and on Memorial Day 2002 he opened up," Lafaye said.
Although Lafaye's family began complaining immediately, DEP officials did not react until Destin's lease was due to expire in 2005. A DEP employee sent an email to Tallahassee that said, "Do not renew at this time. The upland use has changed from commercial marina/bait to a restaurant."
City officials discovered Destin had not gotten building permits or applied for an occupational license, and his parking and restrooms did not meet city requirements. The city sent him a warning, but that was all.
Ask city community development director Ken Gallander what the city has done about Destin's violation and he'll tell you, "Not much." He blames the economy for lessening interest in enforcing regulations.
The DEP took its time too, sending Destin two warning letters, then a "notice of violation" in 2008. Records show that's when he appealed for help from Gaetz.
"I am interested in where DEP is on this," Gaetz wrote to Clark.
Gaetz said Destin had seen him and his wife eating lunch at the restaurant and asked for his help. At Gaetz's behest, Clark said he talked to a DEP lobbyist, then sat in on a meeting between DEP officials and Destin — a meeting that Crew said she was told she couldn't attend. Clark said it appeared officials had already begun working things out before Gaetz got involved.
"DEP was making a good-faith effort not to close the business down," Clark said.
Meanwhile, Destin's attorney tried convincing DEP officials that a seafood restaurant could be considered "water appropriate." A DEP attorney replied, "Docks for boats meet the rule. Wooden tables for out-of-this-world fresh seafood (do) not."
In 2009, Destin sued the state, saying his family had built docks on that land before Florida was a state and, therefore, his family owned it. At first, DEP filed a flurry of legal responses, but for the past two years has filed nothing substantive.
Destin said they're close to working it out: "We give up our claim, and they allow us to continue to operate." He contends DEP wants to settle not because of political influence, but because he's got them over a barrel.
If the DEP were to lose, he said, other old Panhandle families would file claims on submerged acreage, too. The increased acreage would allow them to boost the density of any condominium development there, he said.
After Lafaye found out about the possible settlement, she applied to the DEP to build the identical restaurant on her property. The DEP denied her permit.
Even if Destin works things out with the DEP, he's facing a new challenge. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials have begun an investigation of their own. The only federal permit Destin got was for building the dock — not the restaurant.
Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]