Citizen request to delay removal of his own drainage work provides civic lesson to overall community

FORT PIERCE – Southeast Hidden River Drive homeowner Albert Schwartz received his desired reprieve on a Code Enforcement action on his property even though he was originally told March 23 the public speaking format of the St. Lucie County Commission meeting was the wrong venue for making such a request.

Mr. Schwartz came to the podium that evening to tell commissioners about his struggle with who he referred to as employees of the county’s Road & Bridge Department over his homemade stormwater drainage improvements. He acknowledged that county workers are currently in his neighborhood making improvements to the stormwater drainage swales.

“I had done swale improvements myself, and they want to rip it out and put in their standard swale fix,” he said. “They cite a retaining wall that I used to stop dirt from my lawn from going into the swale as violating the county ordinance. The ordinance they cite says that the Board of Commissioners – you folks – have the authority to direct the removal of such a structure. I’m asking you not to use your authority to allow me to keep it. What we’ve done has perfectly handled our drainage issues.”

The homeowner then proceeded to pass out photos of the stormwater improvements he’d made to his own property on Southeast Hidden River Drive, insisting they handle runoff better than repeated improvements made by county staff over the past decade.

“What the county plans to do will be a muddy mess after one or two rainy seasons,” he said. “We’d have to live with it for another four or five years before they come back and do the same thing over again. How do I know that? It’s what happened last time and the time before that and the time before that. We had been contacting Road & Bridge about our swale problem for six months before we did anything – we had no action. When we decided to take action and use our own money to fix our swale issues, we decided to do it right, so we wouldn’t have the problem again and again and again.”

Chairman Chris Dzadovsky then attempted to steer Mr. Schwartz in a different direction.

“This is really not the venue to state your case today,” he said. “Giving us the inside information as to your thoughts and feelings about the situation is fine, [but] there is a process by which you go through the Code Enforcement Board. So, there’s another venue in which to be heard.”

Chairman Dzadovsky discovered, however, that the frustrated homeowner wouldn’t be deterred so easily.

“Road & Bridge came two weeks ago and they said they were going to rip out the wall,” Mr. Schwartz continued. “I stopped that because it was still within the 30-day notice that they gave me. They have said that they’re not going to do anything until the 26th [of March] because I said I was coming here. I gather that you have not voted to remove my wall.”

When Mr. Schwartz admitted he’d tried to go through District 3 Commissioner Linda Bartz to find a resolution but lacked sufficient time for a resolution, Chairman Dzadovsky handed off the discussion to the county’s Legal Department.

“It’s not an item that’s come before us, and if it’s in the right of way as I suspect, I’m going to bring in the attorney because we’re really getting far afield of what the public comment should be doing today,” the latter said.

County Attorney Dan McIntyre then offered both his legal perspective and a temporary truce in order to bring all the parties together.

“I think it’s probably appropriate to allow the gentleman the opportunity to meet with the Board if he hasn’t already, and we can perhaps defer action on the item until everybody’s at least comfortable,” he said. “We can explain his options at that point. This probably is not the venue as you [Chairman Dzadovsky] suggest, at least under public comment. I think it’s fair to allow a little bit of time to try and see if we can resolve this. If not, at least if nothing else, it will provide an opportunity to explain the next steps to the gentleman so we can go forward.”

The county attorney’s response pleased the worried homeowner.

“I’ll be happy with that answer,” Mr. Schwartz said. “So, action’s deferred pending what the attorney is going to set up. If the swale as we have it doesn’t work, we don’t have any problem with the county doing what they need to do to make it work.”

“That’s why I wanted to have him speak before we kept going on it,” Chairman Dzadovsky replied. “My executive aide’s in the back. He’ll give you a card and you can make appointments with the Board and go through the process, and we can get our staff to give us the background information as well. For some of us, it’s the first time we’re hearing it.”

District 5 Commissioner Cathy Townsend then decided to turn Mr. Schwartz’s Code Enforcement violation situation into a teachable moment for unincorporated St. Lucie County as a whole.

“I think it’s important for people to understand that what he’s referencing is a code issue,” she said. “We have a Code Board that you would go before – it wouldn’t be before us – and I think that’s the process the residents need to understand. When there’s a code violation given by the Code Department, you actually would have 30 days to correct it, [and] they work with you, At that time if you don’t feel that it’s been resolved, you have the right to go before the Code Enforcement Board, and they would help you find the resolution. You’re right [motioning to Chairman Dzadovsky], this isn’t the venue to have this conversation, but I want to take advantage because there’s a lot of people that watch this meeting who need to understand the process.”

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