LOWER KEYS — An administrative law judge has handed down a harsh ruling in what can be described as a neighbor dispute on steroids that could result in a $1 million-plus, oceanfront home being demolished.
The recent ruling also severely chastised a Monroe County building official for what the hearing judge described as “irregular” and “unacceptable behavior.”
Administrative Law Judge John Van Laningham revoked the building permits and elevation certificates the county granted the home on State Road 4A on Sugarloaf Key, which has already been built and is owned by Peter and Emily Giampaoli.
The judge ruled the home was not in compliance with current county building codes and regulations having to do with floodplain management, which were put in place so local property owners can participate in the National Flood Insurance Program, and the county should have not granted the permits and certificates.
Van Laningham was not shy in his criticism of building official Rick Griffin, who is a floodplain administrator with the county. Griffin and other building department officials initially told Giampaoli that the home did not comply with the latest floodplain management regulations.
However, Griffin abruptly changed his position and approved Giampaoli’s application, which sparked his neighbor, Neil Hedrick, to appeal that decision and resulted in an administrative law judge with the state to eventually overturn the approvals.
“The undersigned does not find, nor does he believe, that any corrupt or unlawful activity occurred here, and this should not be read as implying such,” Van Laningham wrote. “At a minimum, Griffin’s action can fairly be described as irregular and unacceptable.”
On Jan. 15, 2009, the Giampaolis applied for a building permit to construct a single-family home on their property. The project was granted extensions and floodplain regulations and the design of the home changed before final building permits and elevation certificates were granted.
The neighbor dispute first started when a substantial amount of fill — more than 3,000 cubic yards — was placed on the property. In or around September 2014, one of Giampaoli’s contractors began hauling fill onto the site, a large operation which required hundreds of truckloads, according to administrative hearing records.
The fill was a flashpoint for Hedrick, who lives next door to the property, according to the judge’s ruling. Hedrick objected initially, among other things, to the mess coming onto his property from dust, mud and vehicular traffic. He later became concerned that the fill might be contaminated with dangerous chemicals. Testing of the soil confirmed Hedrick’s suspicion, as he advised Giampaoli in March 2015. Eventually, Giampaoli removed the fill, which was indeed polluted, after Hedrick brought a lawsuit in circuit court citing this and other issues.
In or around June 2015, more than five years after the original permit had been issued, Giampaoli met an engineer and asked him to review the plans for the house, on which construction had yet to begin. The house had been “over-designed” and would be more expensive to build than a comparable structure, which he could design using “value engineering” to keep costs down, the judge’s ruling stated.
In October 2015, Giampaoli asked the engineer about getting started on a new house plan. In 2016, Giampaoli’s first attempt to obtain a revised permit failed and the project got bogged down in a back-and-forth with the county about whether the newly designed home, or any portion thereof, would be appropriate with the flood zone, according to the ruling.
The engineer continued to revise and refine the plans in an attempt to overcome concerns raised by county building officials. Also in 2016, county floodplain management regulations changed.
Mary Wingate, then a senior county floodplain coordinator, recognized that the newly designed house was different from the one authorized under the original permit, and she identified a handful of items that did not conform to the Florida Building Code. Wingate concluded that the revised project could not be approved as submitted, the ruling stated.
Peter Giampaoli spoke with Wingate by telephone on March 22, 2017, and she told him that she would not approve the plans, the ruling stated. Wingate informed Giampaoli that she had turned over the file to Griffin for his decision.
After the March 30 meeting, Griffin made the decision to approve Giampaoli’s application after all, the ruling stated. He communicated the news to Giampaoli in an email dated April 17, 2017, which stated, “Pete, I have spoken to both [assistant county attorney] Steve Williams and Mary Wingate, we will accept the revisions for your proposed residence with the modifications and the pool will be accepted as it was approved previously. This means the new revisions will just show the location of the pool and the pool construction is from the previous design. If this is agreeable to you please submit the revised house plans as discussed.”
Hedrick, under the corporation name Dalk LP, appealed the county issuing building permits but construction on the house commenced on July 30, 2017, according to the ruling.
Hedrick’s attorney, Ira Gonzalez, said the county should have not allowed construction of the structure because of the appeal.
But Van Laningham’s ruling stated Giampaoli proceeded to build the house with actual knowledge that he was doing so at his own risk, given that the appeal, if successful, might result in the revocation of the revised permit — an outcome that “would jeopardize the continued existence of the SFR (single-family residence) as a legal structure.”
Gonzalez raised concerns about the impacts of the county’s approval and argued it could have jeopardized all Keys property owners standing in the National Flood Insurance Program. The county has fought hard in the past decade to keep flood insurance rates affordable, said Gonzalez, who cited a recent county press release touting its efforts in a federal community rating system program designed to keep rates affordable.
The Giampaolis plan to appeal the ruling, according to their attorney, Robert Wilkins.
“The house is not going to be torn down,” Wilkins said. “In fact, it is one of the strongest houses built in the Keys.”
County attorneys declined to comment on the case, citing pending litigation.