INVERNESS— It sits on the banks of the lazy Withlacoochee River, nestled regally amid moss-draped oaks and quiet pastures.
The hulking metal structure — beige with a tasteful red roof — stands more than two stories tall. Rocking chairs and a covered porch beckon folks to sit a spell and soak up some quiet country atmosphere.
In recent weeks, the building has ignited a furor in Citrus County, where scores of angry people see it as a symbol of a prominent person getting preferential treatment.
The owner says the building is simply a barn, holding equipment to serve the surrounding 25 acres of farmland, and so far county officials have agreed.
Critics of the so-called barn-mahal say it's a house. They point to the two bedrooms, bathroom and kitchen and note that the owner has said his children, grandchildren and business clients sometimes stay there.
When it went up in 2007, the owner didn't need county permits because it was classified as a farm building. He avoided the $9,300 in impact fees and $1,093 in building fees that a residence would have incurred.
To critics, the money is not really the issue. It's the principle.
Or, rather, the principal.
The owner is Charlie Dean, once the county sheriff, now a state senator, long a political powerhouse.
For those who have flooded the local media with angry letters and e-mails, the case smells worse than cow pies in the weeds.
"I know what Mr. Dean is,'' said critic Bob Schweickert Jr., who calls him "the messiah.''
"Our government is supposed to protect us from people like Mr. Dean.''
• • •
Dean, 69, has always cast a large shadow in Citrus County. Big as a barn himself, he combines a booming voice and barrel chest with street smarts and Southern manners.
He was sheriff from 1980 to 1996, following in the boot prints of his father, who wore the star from 1928 to 1945. A lifelong cattleman, Dean is as comfortable on a horse as he is on one of the antique John Deere tractors he collects as a hobby.
Longtime residents recall that Dean once rode a horse in downtown Inverness to rope a bull that had escaped from Citrus High School. A few years back, he again was chasing loose cattle, this time in a pickup on State Road 44.
A Florida Highway Patrol trooper stopped him for speeding, and when Dean reached into his backseat to quiet his dog, the trooper pulled out his gun. Dean dressed down the trooper in the middle of the road for what he saw as unprofessional behavior. He later paid a $130 ticket, and the FHP cleared the trooper of any wrongdoing.
To the surprise of many, Dean retired as sheriff in 1996 and set his sights on the state Legislature. As a Democrat, he lost a campaign for the Senate that year, the only race he has ever lost.
He switched parties and won a House seat in 2002. Five years later, he won a special election to fill out Nancy Argenziano's term in Senate District 3, which runs from the Jacksonville suburbs to Tallahassee, down the Gulf Coast from the Georgia state line to Citrus County.
Re-elected last year, he is now the Senate majority whip and chairman of the Agriculture Committee.
In almost three decades of public service, Dean could always count on strong support from the people of Citrus County.
• • •
The timing of this controversy couldn't be worse, coming as populist anger sweeps the land.
"I think we've reached a point where people are tired of the double standard,'' said Schweickert. "He's no different than AIG (executives).''
Dean did not respond to numerous requests for comment last week.
Schweickert, 45, arrived in Citrus 10 years ago from Pinellas County, where he learned about building rules from his father, a contractor. Now, when he is not busy pursuing a law degree he is a regular at County Commission meetings, stuck on the barn issue like a dog on a bone.
Schweickert argues that the issue has nothing to do with the Right to Farm Act, which Dean has invoked to justify why he could build without permits, inspections and fees.
"We're not saying he can't farm,'' he said. "We're telling Mr. Dean we can't build barns that are quasi-houses.''
The property carries an agricultural exemption. According to the tax rolls, the land and building had a market value in 2008 of $493,836. With the $365,837 exemption, Dean this year paid $2,089 in taxes on $127,999 of value.
If the 4,215-square-foot building were classified residential, it would still only affect the 1,050 square feet that the property appraiser's office considers residential.
As residents' complaints grew, County Commission Chairman John Thrumston berated county staff at a recent meeting — not for going easy on Dean, but for not treating him better.
"We are doing an injustice to Sen. Dean,'' he said. "We didn't even talk to the senator. That's not fair to Sen. Dean, who's being drug through the mud.''
But residents who have tangled with the county code enforcement office over backyard sheds, fences or watering restrictions contend that the case smacks of special treatment.
"Perception is the word,'' David Conant of Beverly Hills told the commission on March 10. People looking at the situation from outside are "going to conclude, 'This is a politician getting a free ride.' ''
• • •
Beyond the heated rhetoric, the big question remains: When does a barn with bedrooms and a bathroom become a home?
"It's never been defined,'' said Gary Maidhof, the county's longtime development services director. "Somebody had to draw the line, and unfortunately it was me.''
Following a resident's complaint in January, a code enforcement officer looked over the site from a sheriff's airboat. But he never set foot on the grounds, never looked inside the building.
Maidhof reviewed the report and decided the complaint was unfounded. His reasoning?
"If I go to court , how would a judge look at it?'' he said. If the county had found the barn violated the law, Dean could produce his agricultural exemption and answer "no'' to the simple question, "Do you live there?''
Dean, Maidhof said, would win the argument.
The County Attorney's Office disagrees.
There is no doubt from Dean's own statements that he has dwelling units in the building, said Assistant County Attorney Gregg Brennan. The question is, does that make it residential?
Brennan said he interprets the statutes to mean a full-time residency is not required.
Dean has reportedly said he showed Maidhof a building plan before construction began. Maidhof, widely respected for his encyclopedic memory, said he doesn't recall that, and nothing on his 2007 calendar reflects such a session. But "if Charlie said it happened, I'm inclined to think it did,'' he said.
Maidhof said that he has felt no political pressure, that he treated Dean's case no differently than any other. "I can't change the public's perception,'' he said. "This is not some kind of sweetheart deal.''
The Citrus County Commission last week directed County Attorney Robert Battista to seek a state attorney general's opinion on the question. Battista said the opinion would have statewide implications since it will clarify and update a 2001 determination on a similar question.
Maidhof said the legislative intent to require structures to meet the Florida Building Code is sound for safety and insurance reasons, especially in a state vulnerable to hurricanes.
But exempting farm buildings from the code is also reasonable, he said, since the Legislature wants to help the agricultural community, which is a mainstay of Florida's economy.
"Somewhere someone has to find a balance between the two,'' he said. "Unfortunately, because of this incident, I had to draw that line and I'm not even an elected official.
"These types of things,'' he said, ''should not be left to the bureaucrats.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352)848-1434. Greg Hamilton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 754-6113.