CORTEZ – The Manatee County Commission has voted to support Raymond Guthrie Jr. in his fight to keep the net camp structure he built in Sarasota Bay last year on what he says is submerged land where his family once had a net camp.
The commission voted on March 20 to send a letter of support for the structure to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which has ordered Guthrie, known locally as “Junior,” to tear it down.
DEP claims that a title search shows that the state owns the submerged land under the unpermitted, 1200-square-foot structure in Sarasota Bay, an Outstanding Florida Waterbody.
Cortez commercial fishermen long used net camps – wooden shacks built on pilings in the water – to mend, clean and store cotton fishing nets; attached net “spreads” were used to hang the nets to dry. They declined in use when netmakers began using polyester, and were made obsolete by the 1994 Florida gill net ban.
“Included in the National Register of Historic Places, the net camps played an inseparable part of the gill and stop net fisheries trade within the historic village. Reconstruction of these historic structures provides the appropriate viewshed to understand the cultural context of the village,” according to the commission’s letter to DEP. “Given historic photos documenting the presence of multiple net camp structures, the reconstruction of this single structure to recapture the essence of the historic Cortez fishing community should be supported with the appropriate state permits.”
According to historic photographs, dozens of net camps once dotted the bay off Cortez, similar to the one built by the Cortez not-for-profit Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage (FISH) as a historic artifact just east of Guthrie’s structure.
That history underlies Guthrie’s claim, which is based on the 1921 Butler Act that awarded title of submerged lands to adjacent waterfront property owners who made permanent improvements on the submerged lands, according to Guthrie’s representative, Joanne Semmer, president of Fort Myers-based Ostego Bay Environmental Inc. The law was repealed in 1957, but continues to affect title to submerged lands improved prior to its repeal.
“We have to prove it was there before 1951, then you can still apply for the footprint,” she said. “It takes a lot of research.”
DEP concedes that aerial images show that a smaller, dilapidated structure existed where Guthrie built his structure, according to a November 2017 order that requires the structure’s removal, assesses $6,500 in fines and costs, and warns that Guthrie could incur up to $10,000 a day in fines.
However, DEP contends that the old structure eventually became unusable, negating a Butler Act claim, spokeswoman Shannon Herbon said.
Like many Cortezians, Karen Bell, of A.P. Bell Fish Co. – which overlooks Guthrie’s structure – joins the county in support of Guthrie.
“I would be thrilled if every single family that had one could build them again,” she said.
DEP’s Office of General Counsel filed a complaint with the Manatee County 12th Circuit Court on Feb. 6 to have Guthrie remove the structure, but DEP was unsuccessful in serving papers to Guthrie because they did not initially have his correct address, Herbon said, adding that after the corrected complaint is served, Guthrie will have 20 days to respond.