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Handyman takes on Dunedin's code regulations in civil rights lawsuit

Handyman Mike Conley, 51, right, and his wife, Kim, 47, say Dunedin can’t stop him from parking his work van in his driveway or force him to get a permit for a back yard shed. City code violation fines, at $150 a day, have compounded to more than $186,000.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Handyman Mike Conley, 51, right, and his wife, Kim, 47, say Dunedin can’t stop him from parking his work van in his driveway or force him to get a permit for a back yard shed. City code violation fines, at $150 a day, have compounded to more than $186,000.

DUNEDIN — Handyman Mike Conley has a tall truck. Tall enough for all his tools. Tall enough that he can walk in, grab a nailer and get back to work.

Too tall, in fact. The city said it has to go.

In a residential neighborhood like Conley's, says Sec. 134-239 of the Dunedin code of ordinances, no work trucks taller than 8 feet are allowed. Conley's is 8 inches too high. Fines of $50 a day have accumulated since May 19, 2006.

A code enforcement officer who went to Conley's to view the truck found another violation. Conley and his neighbor had inherited another neighbor's shed, split it in two, enclosed the sections and put them in their back yards. The neighbors say it was a nice shed — galvanized, reinforced and well-constructed. But the city says it lacks one thing: a permit. Since May 31, 2006, Conley has been fined $100 a day for that.

City officials said the rules are simple, clear and widely followed. Park your vehicle elsewhere, they told him, and get your shed inspected.

But Conley still doesn't understand. All he wanted, he said, was a truck in his driveway and a place to put his things.

So as the fines grew and grew, Conley decided to do something handymen aren't known for doing.

He sued.

• • •

Conley et al vs. the City of Dunedin, Florida is a civil rights case. Conley's attorney, John Shahan, has written in complaints that his client's constitutional rights of protection against excessive fines and promise of due process have been violated. Thirteen months old, the federal case goes to trial in February.

On one side is Conley, the sole employee of J&M Professional Services (the initials stand for "Just Mike"), who lives on south Dunedin's Squire Court. He said he knew the city's code, but that he had sold his old truck for being too tall and, while in the market, couldn't find anything that could fit his tools comfortably and meet the restrictions.

Besides, he told a code enforcement officer, there are plenty of other trucks in the neighborhood over the height limit. The officer allowed the purchase, he said. Months later, at a hearing, the enforcement board levied the daily fine.

On the other side is the city, represented by attorneys from the same firm as Dunedin City Attorney John Hubbard. They say the code is crystal, that the truck approval never happened and that his continued driveway parking and backyard shed use are yearslong violations deserving of what is now more than $186,000 in fines.

It's not about the money, the city's representatives say. Code violators, after complying, have the opportunity to ask the board for a reduction or deletion of fines.

"The city wants one thing and one thing only, which is compliance with its code," said attorney Jay Daigneault. "The city doesn't have a huge vested interest in collecting fines."

Conley agrees that the lawsuit goes beyond money — although, at $150 a day, the fines are more than he could ever pay. It's more a battle over community.

"Dunedin loves to punish people who don't knuckle under their idea of what the town should be," he said. "God help you if you work for a living and don't wear a suit and tie."

• • •

"Dunedin's senseless round of bureaucracy" discards his rationale, Conley said. City officials tell him other tall-truck owners have leased parking spots off-site, to keep their neighborhoods from looking clunky. He tells them he can't afford a second insurance, and that chronic pain in his legs and back make long walks a health hazard.

The city points to his neighbor, Mike Prindiville, who split the shed with Conley. He also received a citation, but then got his permit.

"One individual came in and took care of it all. The other individual is fighting it," said planning and development director Greg Rice. "I'm at a loss as to why (one) would do this. It seems to me that the permit, since the neighbor did it, was certainly not that difficult."

Prindiville points to the process. The shed, which was free, ended up costing about $1,000 after the permit — which required a survey of his home, an engineer inspection and a mail notification to neighbors near his back yard — was finally granted.

"I had a few people call and ask, 'What are you putting in there, an aircraft hangar?' " Prindiville said. "Then they came and saw this and said, 'What the hell are they talking about?' "

In a deposition with Daigneault, Conley's wife, Kim, tells of the frustrating process of "jumping through hoops."

"I heard everything from Susan (Prindiville) and what they were going through in trying to get the shed approved. … How difficult it was and (how) she had come home crying. Every day, she had to deal with the city, very upsetting," Conley said.

When asked what made Prindiville upset, Conley said, "That the city made her feel like a criminal over a shed in her back yard."

"This code is ridiculous and should have been taken away," Mike Prindiville said. "I think somebody along the line should have realized, 'We're making it too hard on anybody, and if someone does stand up to fight us, we're going to lose.' "

Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

Handyman takes on Dunedin's code regulations in civil rights lawsuit 10/22/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 22, 2009 9:57pm]
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