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Iconic produce stand Bearss Groves fights mounting fines over county permits

Hillsborough County says the 25-year-old business never got the permissions it needed to operate — no site development plan, no permits for its structures. But the owner says the county has no jurisdiction.
Hydroponic lettuce grows inside a greenhouse at the 
Bearss Groves market in Lutz. Hillsborough County has cited the business for failing to get contruction permits.
Hydroponic lettuce grows inside a greenhouse at the Bearss Groves market in Lutz. Hillsborough County has cited the business for failing to get contruction permits.
Published Jan. 14, 2019

TAMPA — For 25 years, long before gated communities started springing up around it, the open-air Bearss Groves produce market has sold fresh fruits and vegetables to people living in the Lutz and north Tampa area.

The future, though, may be a different question.

Hillsborough County authorities say the iconic roadside stand never got the permissions it needed to operate — no site development plan, no permits for its structures.

The business at 14316 Lake Magdalene Blvd. at Bearss Avenue is now subject to fines until owner Barry Lawrance complies or ceases operations.

Lawrance, who bought Bearss Groves from the Bearss family in 2008, insists he doesn't need to file the plans and permits with the county because his business is part of a legitimate agricultural operation governed by state law.

He has filed lawsuits in Hillsborough Circuit Court against the county's County Code Enforcement and Construction Services offices, hoping to overturn the citations and fines.

"Why would anyone want to put a 25-year farm operation out of business?" asked Lawrance's attorney Geoffrey Hodges.

In its motion to dismiss Lawrance's lawsuits, the county wrote that "the issue of bona fide agricultural purposes" is something county government is "well equipped to handle and does so regularly."

What's more, the county says, Hillsborough's code enforcement rules gave Lawrance 30 days to appeal the county's September ruling reaffirming the violations. Instead, he filed the lawsuits.

Still, even if a judge sides with the county, it is unlikely Bearss Groves will be shut down, said David Mechanik, a land use attorney who is not connected with the case.

"Judges are human," Mechanik said. "You never know what a court will decide but I think a judge will be fair and won't just toss them out of court."

The county had no comment on the dispute because it involves ongoing litigation, said county spokesman Todd Pratt.

In general, though, according to Pratt, "Someone who wants to build an agricultural stand would need to have the construction plans approved during the site development review process and obtain the required building permit(s)."

The citations center on a new greenhouse at Bearss Groves where produce is grown and the structure where fruits and vegetables have been sold for decades, attorney Hodges said.

Lawrance might "have to tear up the produce stand and green house and start over or modify the structures," Hodges said.

Potential costs, he said, are in the "tens of thousands of dollars. It would put them out of business."

Issuing citations over a structure long in use is a common practice for the county, attorney Mechanik said.

"Code enforcement drives around and if they see something obvious will tag it," he said. "But they don't have enough resources to see everything. They generally react to complaints."

County records show at least one complaint against Bearss Grove before the citations were issued.

In April, a neighbor identified in the record only as "BrownRH" says their property "backs onto" Bearss Groves. Among their charges is that Bearss Grove leaves clutter scattered across its lot.

County records say the issue has been resolved.

Bearss Groves, Hodges said, is protected against such complaints by the Florida Right to Farm Act. The legislation guards farms and support operations from neighboring landowners who might object to the noise. Otherwise, according to the act, Florida farms could be forced into extinction.

More importantly, Hodges said, Florida law exempts nonresidential farm buildings located on land used for legitimate agricultural purposes from county and municipal codes.

Besides growing vegetables like lettuce and radishes in the greenhouse, Bearss Groves owner Lawrance "farms three other parcels in Hillsborough and sells it all through his produce stand," Hodges said. "We say the produce stand is an integral part of the farm operation."

The market's original owner, Marty Bearss, said that's what the state told him in 1993 when he opened the produce stand.

"They told me as long as I was building a structure that was to sell my produce that I didn't need any local permission," he said.

The Bearss family settled in North Tampa in 1894. They once had 100 acres in farming and citrus along what is now the major east-west thoroughfare that carries their name.

Today, only seven acres remains in the family — all of it across the street from produce stand. It still is used by Lawrance and others for farming.

The rest of the land was purchased by developers.

Bearss said he never put the produce stand up for sale to developers because he thinks it still plays a vital role in the community.

"It is important to be able to buy produce that is grown locally," he said. \

And it is important for Lawrance "to continue to be a farmer. But he needs to be able to market his produce and his way is to sell it directly to the consumer is that stand."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or . Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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