CLEARWATER — At the corner of Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and McMullen-Booth Road, there's a bright canary-yellow building that obviously used to be a gas station. Today it's a cycle shop, so parked out front are a bunch of motorcycles and scooters.
Also, there's a hearse.
The hearse showed up last week because the shop's owner, Scott Bitman, says the city of Clearwater is killing his business. He's been fighting with the city for more than two years, and he's on the verge of losing control of his property.
However, Clearwater officials say Bitman opened the business without an occupational license and has been operating it illegally since August 2008.
They say his shop, Cycle Masters at 3100 Gulf-to-Bay, violates several city codes. They've been fining him $250 a day since June 2009. At this point, the fines add up to more than $130,000.
Officials have met with Bitman repeatedly, but they say he's totally unwilling to follow the rules: "We've done all we can for him," said city planning director Michael Delk.
Bitman says the rules are unreasonable for small business owners like him: "There's so many empty properties around here, it's ridiculous."
Following the code
Here's the main problem: Clearwater law says that if a structure goes vacant for six months, the new owner has to get it up to the current building code, instead of the code that existed when the building was constructed.
Bitman's building used to be a service station that closed in December 2005 and remained empty for nearly three years before he took it over.
According to the current code, he's not allowed to display motorcycles outside because his lot is too small. The half-acre site isn't big enough for outdoor vehicle sales under Clearwater laws that were enacted in 1999 to discourage smaller "mom-and-pop" car lots, said city planner Scott Kurleman.
Bitman is also required to upgrade the shop's facade and landscaping. He says these improvements would cost $100,000, which he doesn't have.
The city contends that he should have checked out the rules before opening his shop; that's what most business owners do.
Delk says the shop could sell cycles indoors, but Bitman says keeping vehicles inside wouldn't attract enough customers.
Clearwater leaders aren't ignoring Bitman; in fact, the City Council has devoted quite a bit of time to his case at several public meetings.
He keeps asking the city to loosen up its regulations, which he says make it tough to open a business. This is a familiar complaint; it was a campaign issue in last year's Clearwater elections.
"You want to see that property empty again?" Bitman asked the council. "You want to see it naked, want to see it chicken-wired up again?"
City officials are sensitive about criticism that Clearwater is anti-business. They say the real problem is that Bitman hasn't cooperated with them.
Council members say they're comfortable with the current city codes, which they say reflect the will of the community. They say the codes have significantly reduced visual clutter and improved the look of Clearwater's main thoroughfares. "That's why we don't have billboards on Gulf-to-Bay," said John Doran.
"Any businessman knows that there is a certain level of due diligence that must be done before you endeavor on any venture. And it's best to do that before diving in," said Mayor Frank Hibbard. "I think Mr. Bitman dove in on this one before knowing all the ramifications of our code. And that is unfortunate.
"But I don't think it is necessarily our responsibility to turn everything on its head because he made an unwise investment decision."
Bitman, 52, is a colorful character and seems like an unlikely champion for regulatory reform. He can sound abrasive. He acknowledges that he has a record of arrests for fraud, grand larceny and dealing in stolen property. He's had repeated problems with code enforcement in Tampa, where he has a Cycle Masters location on Nebraska Avenue.
But he thinks plenty of others in Clearwater share his views on this subject. He says he's planning a class-action lawsuit against the city.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4160.