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  1. Pinellas

The Dunedin tall grass story went viral. Then the mayor got threats at her home.

Overgrown grass at the property of Jim Ficken in Dunedin. [City of Dunedin]
Published May 16

DUNEDIN — Last week was not a pleasant one for the city.

Jim Ficken, who racked up almost $30,000 in code violation fines in 2018 for repeatedly overgrowing his lawn, sued Dunedin on May 7 after the city agreed to foreclose on his home. He and his lawyers argued Dunedin's fines were excessive and handed out with virtually no notice.

National outlets ran headlines like "Florida City Tries To Steal an Elderly Man's House Over Uncut Grass." The story went viral on social media. Dunedin staffers got call after call and email after email from incensed readers and viewers. Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski said she and her family were threatened with bodily harm at their home.

City commissioners pushed back against the narrative of a city government gone wild at a work session Tuesday night, arguing that the nation has not heard the full story. Ficken, the city argued, was an absentee landlord who serially violated city codes.

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

Florida cities are legally forbidden to foreclose on homesteaded property to collect code violation fines, City Manager Jennifer Bramley noted to the City Commission. Ficken, a 69-year-old retiree, was not using the home at 1341 Lady Marion Lane as his primary residence, but as an investment home, the city argued.

In his lawsuit, Ficken admits that the Dunedin home is not his homesteaded residence. But Ari Bargil, the lead Institute for Justice attorney on Ficken's case, said that's merely a clerical matter. Ficken moved from his Clearwater homestead into the Dunedin property in the spring of 2017, Bargil said.

Ficken's nextdoor neighbor, Randall Johnson, said he doubted Ficken moved in then. Johnson said he has complained to the city multiple times over the years about the condition of Ficken's home.

"The guy never lived there," Johnson said in an interview at his home. (Bargil said that his client did live at the home, he just kept to himself.)

Ficken was hardly blindsided, considering the city deemed him a repeat code violator in 2015 — subjecting Ficken to $500 per day fines for future violations, Bramley argued. Records show that Ficken has been cited a total of 15 times by the city for code violations dating back to 2007.

"$500 per day is a standard in most Florida cities for a repeat offender," Bramley told the City Commission. "It is predicated upon the need to ensure the violation is brought into compliance quickly." (Bargil said Ficken immediately cut his grass following each of the Dunedin infractions he was aware of.)

In his lawsuit, Ficken said the city gave him "no notice" that he would be fined $500 per day for his overgrown lawn beginning in July of 2018. Bramley disputed that claim Tuesday, contending that a code enforcement official visited Ficken around July 5 to warn him about the hefty fines if he did not comply.

Bargil said Ficken was out of town tending to his deceased mother's estate around and shortly after July 5, so no such meeting could have happened.

Dunedin officials brought up Ficken's other homes. Bramley pointed out that Pinellas County records show that Ficken had a history of code violations on his home in Clearwater in the last decade.

The Clearwater homestead and the Dunedin house at the center of the lawsuit are not Ficken's only properties, Bramley said. Records show Ficken's various non-homesteaded properties appear to be owned by different, similarly named trusts, for which he is the sole beneficiary. The retiree owns at least three homes in total.

Bargil said Ficken's properties are not a source of income.

Finally, Ficken's lawsuit portrayed the Dunedin Code Enforcement Board as a body that has voraciously collected fines in recent years. From 2007 to 2018, the city's total of collected fines shot up 3,807%, the suit noted.

"The city is insisting that (Ficken's case) is a one-off, and that is just not true," Bargil said in an interview. The lawyer said he's heard from dozens more Dunedin residents with code enforcement horror stories.

Bramley said that increase in fines collected could be attributed to the spike in bank-owned homes following the great recession. The city had to hit those abandoned properties with hefty fines to get the banks to bring them up to code, the city manager argued. Dunedin expects revenue from code enforcement fines to decline the next two years.

Bramley concluded her remarks to the City Commission by praising the efforts of the city's code enforcement officers. She commended the citizens who serve on the Code Enforcement Board. She cited a city survey that showed 73 percent of citizens said Dunedin performs the right amount or too little code enforcement.

"I encourage them to continue the fine job that they're doing," Bramley said.

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

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