|Your Camera or Your House Key|
|Written by Francisco Alvarado, BT Contributor|
Miami Shores resident claims lien on his house was over illegal permit fees
Installing a low-wattage security camera system on the exterior walls of a house in Miami Shores can lead to a high-voltage confrontation with the town’s hard-hitting code-enforcement apparatus.
Consider the case of Steven Shulman, who came very close to losing his home after being hit with a $86,300 bill for failing to obtain a permit to put up security cameras on his lushly landscaped, two-bedroom house seven years ago.
After negotiating his fines down to a manageable $606 in 2015, Shulman tells the BT that the fight is far from over. “I was selectively chosen to be the guy who gets discriminated against,” Shulman says. “Based on what happened to me, every single homeowner who installs cameras would have to get a permit. It would be a huge revenue generator for Miami Shores. But there’s nothing in the code that applies in my case.”
Although thwarted in his recent attempt at appealing directly to the Miami Shores Village Council for a refund, at least one local politician believes the former health insurance salesman’s complaint has merit.
“I believe our code needs to be looked at -- particularly the section referencing Steven’s case needs to be revisited,” says Miami Shores Councilwoman Ivonne Ledesma. “I am hoping this is an issue the village will soon address.”
Indeed, Shulman’s ordeal illuminates the ongoing frustration that many Miami Shores residents have with the village’s stringent code enforcement, which garnered national media attention when town officials vigorously cracked down on homeowners who had a front-yard organic vegetable garden. Last year a Miami-Dade Circuit Court judge upheld the village’s right to force Hermine Ricketts and her husband, Tom Carroll, to remove their garden, which had been around for 17 years. The couple is appealing the ruling.
Shulman contacted Biscayne Times after it reported last month that village manager Tom Benton appears to be in violation of the rules because he has only one tree planted on his property when the code requires a minimum of two (see “Could Be a Code Breaker,” January 2017). Critics alleged that Miami Shores government officials don’t face punishment when they break the rules.
Benton did not respond to two phone messages and an e-mail requesting comment for this story.
Miami Shores Mayor Alice Burch, who shut down Shulman’s attempt to make his presentation, which had been scheduled for the village council’s February 21 meeting, declined to answer questions about his complaint. “I’m not at liberty to comment in the event this ends up in litigation,” she says.
Shulman’s troubles began in the summer of 2010, when he enlisted a neighbor who was a contractor with years of experience installing security systems for large commercial buildings and stadiums to help him put in surveillance cameras beneath the rain gutters lining the roof of his house. On August 12, 2010, Miami Shores code enforcement officer Anthony Flores issued Shulman a courtesy notice that he was required to obtain a permit for installing the cameras.
The notice cited a section of the village code prohibiting property owners from making any type of improvement worth $100 or more without a permit, whether it be the demolition of a room or a small alteration. Shulman recounts that he did not believe he violated the code because the language does not specifically address the installation of security cameras.
“It doesn’t apply to me,” Shulman says. “There is nothing the code that has anything to do with low-voltage cameras and low-voltage lighting. If it did, then Miami Shores would need to fine 50 percent of the community because of low-voltage lighting on their properties. This boils down to selective enforcement.”
Two months after receiving the courtesy notice, Shulman was cited for violating the Miami Shores code. According to the case file, the village’s code enforcement board upheld the citation and ordered Shulman to obtain the permit by November 3, 2010. He faced a daily fine of $50 if he did not get the permit. The village sent Shulman two letters in January and February, warning him that Miami Shores would put a lien on his property if he failed to get the permit and did not pay the accruing fines, according to the case file.
Shulman tells the BT that he never received the letters and was never made aware that his property was subject to a lien over the security cameras. It wasn’t until July 2015 when he found out the village had placed a lien on his property. He had fallen on hard times and had missed several of his mortgage payments.
“I was facing foreclosure on my house,” Shulman recollects. “I was fortunate to get approved for a reverse mortgage, but then this lien popped up.”
According to village records, he owed $86,300 in daily fines for not getting the permit for the cameras. “That’s when things really started to go bad,” Shulman says. “I’m panicking because I have a limited amount of time or I was going to lose my home.”
Shulman says he first tried to plead his case to Benton, the town manager. “He told me there was nothing he could do,” Shulman recalls. “I’m still insisting there’s nothing in the code that states I need a permit for low-voltage cameras.”
On August 6, 2015, Shulman returned to the code enforcement board to once again plead his case. This time he got the permit prior to the meeting. He had to pay $106 for it. According to the minutes, board members and the village attorney did not budge on their broad interpretation that the camera installation was construction work valued at $100 or more.
“I negotiated down to a $500 fine,” Shulman explains. “I borrowed the money so they would release the lien and I could get my mortgage.” According to the case file, he paid the village on November 6, 2015.
Two months ago, he discovered that the state legislature had passed a law back in March 2015 stating that local governments could not charge property owners for the installation of security systems. That was several months before his appearance at the code enforcement board meeting.
“I decided I wanted my $606 back,” Shulman says. “In order to make a presentation to the village council, I had to get a councilperson to sponsor me, so I went to Ledesma.”
But Burch didn’t allow Shulman to make his case. Based on advice from village attorney Richard Sarafan, she says the town council meeting was not the appropriate venue for him to request a reversal of the code enforcement board’s decision. “I imagine there’s a long line of people who would like a refund,” Sarafan says.
Joe Geller, a lawyer who has represented several local municipalities and who currently serves as attorney for neighboring El Portal, says village officials made a tough call. “Obviously, the case predates the change in state law,” Geller observes. “Cities have these type of ordinances in place to protect against unlicensed work. And it sounds like a closed case since they reduced the fine to $500.”
On the other hand, Miami Shores Councilwoman Ledesma says the village code definitely needs tweaking. “You can keep the character of Miami Shores and still have a reasonable code,” she says. “To me it seems unreasonable because it is so vague and covers a lot.”
As for Shulman, he vows he’ll see Miami Shores in small claims court: “I think this is crooked and corrupt.”
Volume 15, Issue 1, March 2017
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