Judge refuses to dismiss Brown’s third lawsuit against the county

Chris Brown filed suit against Sarasota County in 2011, after the parking assessments rose dramatically that year for The Hub Baja Grill, The Cottage and Blu Que Island Grill — three of his properties in Siesta Village. Photo by Norman Schimmel

At the conclusion of a 20-minute hearing on June 18, 12th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Lee Haworth refused to grant a motion by Sarasota County to dismiss a civil rights lawsuit Siesta Village property owner Chris Brown filed against Sarasota County in October 2011.

Brown’s lawsuit claims that the county lowered the 2011 parking assessments for 74 other Siesta Village properties in the Parking Improvement District at the same time it raised the assessments on three of his properties. The lawsuit calls that action discriminatory and a violation of Brown’s civil rights.

However, Haworth did dismiss two of the original counts in the lawsuit: that the court direct the county to repeal those contested parking assessments for Brown’s parcels and that the court declare that the use of a “measuring wheel” to determine the patron area of Siesta Village restaurants violated Brown’s constitutional rights.

“We’re very pleased that the judge has allowed us to go forward on our complaints, as this has been an ongoing problem,” Brown’s attorney, Morgan Bentley of Bentley & Bruning, told The Sarasota News Leader after the hearing.

“Having said that,” Bentley added, “we’re hopeful that we can work this out with the county in some amicable way.”

Brown declined to comment.

Assistant County Attorney David Pearce told the News Leader he also had no comment on Haworth’s ruling.

The lawsuit originated in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court, but the county was successful in October 2011 in moving it to U.S. District Court in Tampa, because of its allegations of civil rights violations.

However, a U.S. District Court judge in January sided with Brown’s assertion that the case belonged in the Circuit Court and ordered it remanded. Judge Susan C. Bucklew ruled that the case involved a county tax matter, noting that the county had not contested the fact that the parking assessment was a tax.

The lawsuit filed Oct. 4, 2011, in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court says the parking assessment for Blu Smoke — now Blu Que — Island Grill on Avenida Messina went from $138.25 in 2010 to $2,059.65 in 2011, an increase of almost 1,500%.

The assessments for The Hub Baja Grill and The Cottage almost doubled from 2010 to 2011 — from a total of $3,351.41 to $6,382.95.

Pearce argued during the June 18 hearing that, according to a county ordinance, after the County Commission adopts the annual assessment roll, a property owner has 20 days to appeal an assessment. In Brown’s situation, Pearce said, the County Commission adopted the final assessment on Sept. 12, 2011. However, Brown did not appeal the assessments on the three properties within the 20-day timeframe before he filed suit, Pearce said.

Bentley argued that a U.S. Supreme Court case provides for a four-year statute of limitations in civil rights cases. He added that if Haworth agreed with the county’s interpretation of the law, Haworth would be saying the county’s 20-day statute of limitations “trumps a United States statute on civil rights violations …”

At the outset of his arguments to the court, Bentley provided background in the case, saying, “This has been a bit of a soap opera with [The Hub] property.”

He told Haworth that then-Sarasota County Zoning Administrator Tina Crawford first offered one interpretation of the Siesta Village parking ordinance when Brown was remodeling two properties to create The Hub in 2007. Then she reversed herself, Bentley said. That decision resulted in a months-long delay of The Hub’s opening.

The county paid Brown to settle a lawsuit Brown subsequently filed against it in that matter, Bentley said.

Nonetheless, two years later, county staff changed the manner in which it measured Brown’s parking assessment, Bentley added, leading to a second lawsuit. The county settled that case with Brown in June 2011, with the county refunding Brown about $2,500.

Three weeks after that settlement, Bentley said, the county sent Brown his 2011 bill showing those big increases in the assessments for three of his Siesta Village properties.

Bentley said that at this point, Brown is not asking that the 2011 assessments be voided. Brown had paid those assessments, Bentley added. “We’re asking for damages.”

Moreover, Bentley said, “we’re not challenging the county on the methodology” for determining the assessments. Instead, he said, Brown is challenging the county over the way the methodology was applied to those parcels.

“We’re saying there’s affirmative wrongdoing by the county,” Bentley added.