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Lawsuit against Hernando County reveals a long list of problems with hog hunting camp

Whether hog hunting is agritourism — agricultural tourism — may depend on whether land is considered agricultural or commercial property.

Times files

Whether hog hunting is agritourism — agricultural tourism — may depend on whether land is considered agricultural or commercial property.

BROOKSVILLE — The owners of a hog hunting camp near Ridge Manor, who were previously denied permission to continue that business, have filed a legal complaint against Hernando County.

The property owners, Gerald and Ann Semeniuk, cite a new law promoting agricultural tourism and the state's Right to Farm Act as reasons why the county cannot regulate the use of their 82-acre property south of Cortez Boulevard and west of Mc­Kethan Road.

They are seeking an injunction to keep the county from enforcing any of its codes or ordinances until the case is resolved. The complaint also requests damages for what they call violations of state law by the county, a stay on enforcement and the reversal of a finding that they ran the hog hunt without the correct permits.

County Attorney Garth Coller said last week that he had not seen the lawsuit and that he does not comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuit details how the problems with the hog hunting camp — which faced strong opposition from neighbors — have led to other conflicts between the Semeniuks and the county.

Questions about its use as a hunt camp prompted the Property Appraiser's Office to re-evaluate its agricultural exemptions, or green belt status. And the Semeniuks lost 30 acres of green belt exemption after the county determined that they were using the property for commercial and not agricultural uses.

The complaint alleges that the county violated the law in reducing this exemption.

Another issue that came up because of the increased attention given to the property: The county requested that the barn be reclassified as a residence.

Earlier in the year when Hernando County Sheriff's deputies responded to a complaint at the property, Gerald Semeniuk told them that he lived on the property, though there was no record of a home on the land.

Tips from neighbors and aerial photos of the property indicated the presence of several buildings even though a permit was issued for just one: a barn without any plumbing or electrical improvements. After the county Development Department repeatedly asked, unsuccessfully, to inspect the property, it received a warrant from a Hernando County judge in August to inspect it without the owners' permission.

The Semeniuks complaint states that the county violated their right to due process by seeking the inspection warrant without "first contacting the property owners and requesting proof of compliance with the Hernando County Code or simply asking for permission to inspect the alleged violations.''

But records show the county did ask to inspect the land.

In a letter dated July 23 to Ann Semeniuk and attached to the file that accompanies that warrant, Vic Heisler, a development department investigator, explained that an aerial photo showed several buildings that were apparently built without permits.

The letter informs her that she has 10 days to contact the office to schedule an inspection. It also stated that if she did not comply, the county could find multiple violations.

The manager of the hog hunting camp, Ron Ritter, wrote back to Heisler to say that the permits were not necessary and that he was refusing to allow an inspection.

When the development department, armed with the warrant, finally did inspect the land, it found that there were some unpermitted structures. The county notified the Semeniuks that they have until Nov. 18 to get the proper permits, according to Jodi Singer, building department operations manager.

In their complaint, the Semeniuks say that the county has "imposed excessive fines'' by insisting on the following steps to bring the barn's unpermitted electrical work into compliance: hire a licensed electrician to remove the existing electrical system, request a permit and then replace the electrical system.

"This is not the typical remedy listed in the Hernando County Code . . . and represents an excessive punishment to again attempt to disrupt the agricultural activities of the plaintiffs rather than resolve any identified permitting issues,'' the complaint states.

The Semeniuks go on to say that they believe any work done on agriculturally zoned land is governed by the Department of Agriculture.

In the county's pitch to obtain a warrant, Heisler states that the agritourism law does not exempt the Semeniuks from obtaining permits to build structures and install electrical and plumbing systems.

Although the County Commission in July denied the Semeniuks the permit necessary to run a hog hunting camp on their property, Ritter, the manager of the operation, vowed to continue to run the enterprise because he considered it to be allowed under the new law.

Ritter's website ilivewild.com is still advertising hog hunts.

The Semeniuks were fined $418.39 for failing to have the necessary permit to run the business. They have not paid that amount and seek to have that overturned through their lawsuit.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

Lawsuit against Hernando County reveals a long list of problems with hog hunting camp 10/15/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 15, 2013 7:26pm]
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