ST. PETE BEACH — A July 4 All Children's Hospital charity event has run smack into a long-standing political buzz saw this week, forcing a major downscaling of planned activities.
That buzz saw was an angry Chet Chmielewski, a Pass-a-Grille resident who has long fought the city over use of the beach behind his home at 3214 El Centro St.
Chmielewski, who ran unsuccessfully in 1974 for the County Commission against Charles Rainey, lost a fight with the city in the mid 1970s over a plan to convert a neighboring stucco, two-story building into the Don Vista Cultural Arts Center.
In 1983, he threatened to distribute fliers advising his Pass-a-Grille neighbors to secede from the city.
In 1991, the city considered filing a lawsuit against Chmielewski to stop him from calling them at their homes and private businesses with complaints.
Then last year, Chmielewski won a court battle against the city, getting a judgment that he owns a 50-foot-wide section of beach extending from his home to the waterline on the Gulf of Mexico.
The city subsequently acknowledged that members of the public using the Don Vista do not have the right to "travel onto" Chmielewski's beach property.
Reached by phone Thursday, Chmielewski said more lawsuits are planned against the city over public use of his property, which is part of the Block M&N property south and north of the Don CeSar Resort. "No one has ever received permission from me to use my property," he said.
Which brings the story back to the All Children's charity event.
Organizer James Ramos contacted Mayor Mike Finnerty and City Manager Mike Bonfield months ago about holding the event on the beach near the Don CeSar. Finnerty sought Chmielewski's approval.
"Chet first said it was no problem since it was for kids, and shook hands with the mayor. He later changed his mind and said he would sue everybody," said Bonfield. "Nobody wanted to make this complicated. It just got complicated."
Last week, Chmielewski e-mailed Ramos and city officials charging that "for 37 years this city administration has been attempting to steal Block M&N. The most notorious villain in this has been Bozo Bonfield … Block M&N is private property. Stay off Block M&N."
In response, Finnerty e-mailed Chmielewski "to assure you that no one is trying to harm you, steal anyone's property or depreciate your property value in any way. We are just trying to conduct a fundraiser to save the lives of some very sick children."
Ramos had enjoyed playing Wiffle Ball on the beach as a child. After his two children developed a disease requiring transfusions of their entire supply of blood every week, Ramos became involved with a research doctor at All Children's Hospital who developed a method to significantly increase the time between transfusions.
The July 4th Wiffle Ball Tournament will still go on, says Ramos, but now will not include a planned tent on the beach where alcoholic beverages would be served or a mooring area in the gulf where people could come to the tournament by boat.
Instead, the city's Don Vista Cultural Arts Center will be used as a registration and refreshment center while the Wiffle Ball tournament is held on the beach. In the evening, the event will move to the Don CeSar Beach Resort for a party and awards ceremony.
"I am hoping that this event will be a great success and a mainstay in the St. Pete Beach landscape for years to come," Ramos said Friday. "There are not many fundraisers that I know of as unique as this one will be."
Ramos hopes to raise up to $75,000 for the hospital's Allergy/Immunology Research Fund.