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  1. Pinellas

Dunedin fined a man $30,000 for tall grass. Now the city is foreclosing on his home.

Dunedin homeowner Jim Ficken stands beside his attorneys, Andrew Ward (left) and Ari Bargil (right), during a news conference at his home. Ficken is suing the city of Dunedin for deciding to foreclose on his home due to accumulated fines for overgrown grass at nearly $30,000. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]
Published May 9

DUNEDIN — Jim Ficken admits he let his grass grow too long. He just doesn't think he should lose his house over it.

The city of Dunedin's Code Enforcement Board moved to foreclose on Ficken's home Tuesday because he has failed to pay nearly $30,000 in code violation fines he accrued in 2018. The city fined him $500 per day over the summer because his grass grew longer than 10 inches.

The same day the city moved to foreclose, Ficken, 69, filed a lawsuit against Dunedin and members of its Code Enforcement Board. He's seeking $1 in nominal damages, attorneys fees and injunctions that would relieve him of the fines. The suit also hopes to end Dunedin's alleged practice of fining people "without considering a homeowner's ability to pay."

Ficken held a news conference Wednesday in front of his home at 1341 Lady Marion Lane to announce the filing of the lawsuit. His lawn was trimmed.

"It's an excessive fine, and everyone I've spoken to says it's outrageous," Ficken, a retiree on a fixed income, said.

Dunedin mayor Julie Ward Bujalski defended the Code Enforcement Board. It's a citizen-driven body that reacts to complaints from other Dunedin residents, Bujalski said. Ficken's property was the subject of complaints from his neighbors, so the board took action. (Ficken's attorneys said they haven't seen any evidence neighbors complained.)

According to the lawsuit, Ficken routinely spent weeks at a time away from his property to aid his dying mother in South Carolina. In 2015, while Ficken was in South Carolina, Dunedin cited him for having grass that was too tall. According to code enforcement policy, any subsequent violation of a city code in the next five years would make Ficken a repeat offender.

Ficken's mother, Marinelle Ficken, died in the summer of 2016. Ficken left Dunedin for two weeks in July of 2018 to manage her estate. During that time, the man who mowed his lawn, Russ Kellum, died suddenly. When Ficken got back and tried to mow his overgrown lawn himself, his mower broke, the lawsuit said.

Dunedin gave Ficken no notice that it was charging him $500 every day for the length of his grass, Ficken said. The fines were so hefty because Ficken was a repeat offender.

It was nearly two months before Ficken had any idea he owed the city tens of thousands of dollars, he said. On Aug. 20, a code enforcement official making his daily rounds told Ficken to expect "a big bill from the city," his lawsuit said.

That day, Ficken bought a new mower. The next day, Aug. 21, he mowed his lawn. He also received notice from the city that he was to appear at a hearing with the Code Enforcement Board on Sept 4.

Ficken couldn't make that hearing. He was due in South Carolina to manage another issue with his mother's estate, he said. The board met without him on Sept. 4 and determined his fine would stand. The board also approved a separate fine, alleging that his grass had grown too long again starting Aug. 31. Ficken said he had no notice of this fine either.

Between the two fines, Ficken owed Dunedin $29,833.50 — on a house with a $125,541 market value, according to the Pinellas County Property Appraiser.

Bujalski pointed to records that showed Ficken had a history of code violation complaints on a property in Clearwater. The mayor added that Ficken had numerous opportunities to negotiate with City Attorney Tom Trask about the fine. Ficken denied that.

Ficken searched for legal help while the city moved to foreclose on his house. He came upon the libertarian-leaning Institute for Justice, which in February 2019 won a landmark property rights case, Timbs v. Indiana. All nine justices of the Supreme Court of the United States agreed in that case that states and local governments are not allow to levy excessive fines.

The Institute for Justice agreed to take on Ficken's case pro bono, said lead attorney Ari Bargil.

"Nobody should lose their house for having tall grass," Bargil said at the news conference.

Dunedin has cracked down on code violations in recent years. According to an analysis in Ficken's lawsuit, the city collected almost $1.3 million in code enforcement violations in 2018 — up from $34,000 in 2007.

Those cases are often messy and time-consuming for citizens. Liz Taylor was born in Dunedin. Her family has owned a substantial plot of land on New York Avenue since the 1930s.

Taylor's mother, Sylvia Earle, is a famous ocean explorer. Although she's in her 80s, she travels 300 days out of the year, leaving her Dunedin property to be managed by a groundskeeping company.

In 2018, Earle ran afoul of the Dunedin Code Enforcement Board. Despite near constant communication with the city, Dunedin fined Earle some $28,000 for maintenance issues on her property. She too was a repeat offender who failed to show up for a hearing.

Earle's daughter said Dunedin shouldn't enforce its codes this way.

"To me, it's just predatory on people who are A, elderly; B, travel a lot; or C, under some financial duress," Taylor said.

Bujalski said the cases of Earle and Ficken were outliers. The Code Enforcement Board levies hefty fines at times because it wants compliance, not property, Bujalski said.

"We are not interested in making money on the backs of our citizens," the mayor said.

Eventually, Earle, facing exorbitant legal costs if she were to fight the fines, settled with the city. She agreed to pay $10,000 and give a lecture on the oceans at the Dunedin Public Library.

The lecture is Saturday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m.

Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Contact Kirby Wilson at kwilson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8793. Follow @kirbywtweets

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