Bell claims ownership of disputed Guthrie property

Cortez Guthrie
Raymond Guthrie Sr.’s net camp as it existed in 1922 off the village of Cortez, according to Doris Green’s book about Cortez, “Fog’s Comin’ in.”

CORTEZ – A third party has joined the legal battle over the net camp that Raymond Guthrie Jr. built in 2017, and the disputed submerged lands under it in Sarasota Bay.

A.P. Bell Fish Co., north of the structure, filed suit against the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) on May 3 in 12th Judicial Circuit Court in Manatee County, asserting its ownership of both the net camp and the submerged lands.

FDEP sued the wrong party when it filed a complaint against Guthrie in February ordering him to remove the 1200-square-foot structure, claiming he built it without permission on sovereign state-owned submerged lands, according to Bell Fish Co. Manager Karen Bell, who also sued to intervene in the DEP vs. Guthrie case.

“We’re claiming that we have title to the net camp and the submerged lands, and we are intervening because they’re impacting our ownership,” she said. “We own it. We want it there. We’re not going to make him leave.”

In the motion to intervene in the action between FDEP and Guthrie filed on May 4, Bell claims the structure has existed since at least the early 1900s, and, with the submerged lands, is protected by the 1921 Butler Act, which awards title of submerged lands to adjacent waterfront property owners who made permanent improvements on the submerged lands. The law was repealed in the 1950s but continues to affect title to submerged lands that were “improved” with construction prior to its repeal.

FDEP concedes that historic aerial images show a smaller structure where Guthrie built his structure, but the smaller structure became dilapidated, negating a Butler Act claim, according to spokeswoman Shannon Herbon.

The motion to intervene traces Bell’s ownership of the real estate to the 1800s when Guthrie, Fulford and other families from North Carolina settled the area. By the early 1900s, wooden structures built on pilings – called “net camps” or “fish camps” – were numerous in the bay off Cortez, used for supply storage, net mending, and living quarters, and were connected to the mainland by piers, according to the lawsuit.

Bell asserts it is entitled to a disclaimer from the Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund of the State of Florida, named as a co-defendant in the lawsuit, acknowledging Bell’s ownership.

“A.P. Bell will suffer irreparable harm if BOT and its agent, FDEP, are allowed to continue in their quest to remove and destroy the historic Guthrie Fish Camp structure under the guise that it is on sovereignty submerged lands without this circuit court’s determination of A.P. Bell’s Butler Act ownership claims, in violation of A.P. Bell’s property and due process rights under the Federal and Florida Constitutions,” the lawsuit asserts.

A hearing has not yet been set in the case.