How do real estate laws impact the communities inhabiting and using the land? Ideally, zoning, building codes, permitting, and statutes help make buildings and their use benefit the community – rather than simply existing only to be avoided or swatted away. Sometimes, those with the power to enforce real estate regulations will work to legally accommodate a business that rests at the center of a community benefiting from its presence. In Lutz, FL, we see an example of how pragmatic dialogue can cut through bureaucracy in a resolution between the Bearss Groves produce stand and the Hillsborough County Commissioner.
Those Fines Sure Do Pile Up
The trouble seems to have originated from an assumption on the part of the owner of Bearss Groves – Barry Lawrance – and a lack of questioning from Hillsborough county for years. When Lawrance bought the stand in 2012, he assumed that the business counted as an “ag-stand.”
If designated for agricultural use, the property isn’t subject to county regulations. Thus, Lawrance wouldn’t have sought permits or even checked with the county as he constructed additions and increased the sprawl of his stand property.
For many years, this wasn’t a problem. Originally an orange grove, the open-air produce stand has been a fixture at its intersection of W. Bearss Ave and Lake Magdalene Blvd since 1993 (when Lawrance started working there at age 13).
Perhaps that’s why Lawrance was able to grow the stand, unquestioned, to its current form: 3,000 square feet of structures including refrigeration cases and a hydroponic greenhouse for growing lettuce. The stand also expanded to sell honey and other prepared foods like banana bread.
But it was the exponential expansion that almost brought about its downfall. A noise complaint from neighbors regarding the sound of industrial fans caught county attention in 2019, leading to the county taking a deeper look into the stand’s permitting in general.
It wasn’t a pretty picture. Ag-stands are only supposed to take up 150 square feet. And they are not allowed to sell prepared food items beyond fresh produce. Bearss Groves’ produce stand was clearly in violation, and a lot of it.
The county issued an initial fine, citing that Lawrance had undertaken construction on the property without:
Rather than obtain these approvals and permits retroactively, Lawrance resisted for several months. He argued that the stand should be given grace, because it was an agricultural operation.
And so began the dance of notices and arguments, choreographed by an A.I. algorithm trained on bureaucracy through repeatedly viewing Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. The county warned Lawrance that he would be fined $200 per day starting November 2018 if he didn’t comply with the permitting requirements. Lawrance argued that his agricultural business should be subject to greenbelt laws – exempting it from county regulations. Lawrance’s strategy of questioning government authority was a bold but solidly American play. While the strategy yields mixed results, it has an almost 100% success rate in causing the governing body to assert their authority even harder.
Perhaps Lawrance does have some farmer stubbornness in him. He didn’t budge on his position for years. Instead of acquiescing, as the county pressed the stand with fine after fine, Lawrance sued the county. At times, he was able to get the fines frozen during the proceedings. Still, fines ended up accumulating in excess of $160,000.
“But Florida Needs Farms”
Lawrance’s stance rests on the Florida Farm Act. He cited the crux of the act:
“…to protect reasonable agricultural and complementary agritourism activities conducted on farm land from nuisance suits and other similar lawsuits.”
He argued that Florida should go easy on the Bearss Groves produce stand, because habitats for agricultural operations are increasingly endangered as land around them becomes developed.
Basically, he challenged the county to choose pragmatism over bureaucracy: Did the Lutz community really need to badger a produce stand out of business? Or did they need to take a more relaxed interpretation of their ag-stand rules to allow a valuable farm-connected place to keep its doors open?
Perhaps the most inspiring part of this case is that Lawrance persisted until his voice reached Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, who saw the value of the Bearss Grove stand and agreed to work with Lawrance.
Lawrance made it clear that the burdensome fines would definitively close down his business. Fines can be waived in certain circumstances, but the legal pathway was anything but straightforward in Lawrance’s situation. To reach a pragmatic resolution, give and take needed to take place from both sides. The commissioner is currently helping Lawrance change the zoning of the Bearss Groves stand – to transition it to good standing. And, from there, the county can ultimately waive the fines.
It’s Worth Trying to Talk
The beauty of this situation is that Lawrance and key leaders in the Hillsborough community were able to reach beyond rigid statutes to grasp the material consequences of zoning and permits. They united around a common goal: the community, customers, and business owner wanted the produce stand to continue. With that common goal, they found a solution that will allow Bearss Groves to carry on.
Let this be a model when butting up against a harsh land use regulation The rules don’t exist for their own good – they exist for the good of the community living within their governance. If you’re struggling to keep your head above water in a situation like this, talk to the people who lead. They just may listen. And get professional legal help – it goes a long way when you need to present your story with focus on the parts that may change minds.