Bell submits Butler Act evidence

Bell Guthrie aerial
Raymond Guthrie Jr.’s net camp, far right, today, off A.P. Bell Fish Co. in Cortez, facing east. - A.P. Bell Fish Co. | Submitted

CORTEZ – The A.P. Bell Fish Co. submitted 44 pieces of evidence on Friday to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) that a net camp built by Raymond Guthrie Jr. in May 2017 on submerged land is protected by the Butler Act.

The DEP ordered Guthrie to demolish the 1,200-foot structure last summer, saying it was built on state submerged lands without a permit.

When he did not, the DEP sued him, requesting in February that the 12th Judicial Circuit Court in Manatee County issue an injunction requiring him to remove the structure and pay $16,500 in penalties plus attorney fees and court costs.

The A.P. Bell Fish Co. sued DEP in May asserting its ownership of both the structure, which Guthrie calls a net camp or fish camp, and the submerged land under the structure, which lies just offshore of the fish house. The camps were used for cleaning, drying, mending and storing cotton nets, now obsolete, and sometimes served as homes for fishermen.

Bell also filed a motion to intervene in DEP’s case against Guthrie, claiming that the structure dates to at least the early 1900s, and, with the submerged land, is protected by the 1921 Butler Act.

The act 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 The law was repealed in the 1950s but continues to affect title to submerged lands that were improved with construction prior to its repeal.

“We have to prove under the Butler Act that the camp existed before May of 1951,” said Joanne Semmer, president of Ostego Bay Environmental Inc. of Fort Myers, a consultant for Bell in the case.

Semmer’s submission, made on Bell’s behalf, contains historic aerial photographs and passages from books showing that a net camp existed in the same place as Guthrie’s as far back as the 1920s, she said. She added that the exhibits also include surveys documenting its existence through the 1940s.

Guthrie historic net camp
An historic photo of the remains of the previous net camp, far right, facing south. – A. P. Bell Fish Co. | Submitted

The Butler Act does not apply even if the structure was built before the repeal of the act because the net camp was never “continuously connected to the upland property,” according to Marianna Sarkisyan, DEP senior assistant general counsel, in her June answer to Bell’s lawsuit.

Semmer says that’s not so, and that the camp was connected to the Bell fish house by a dock, according to her research.

DEP also claims that the “unauthorized enclosed docking structure in dispute is not the original ‘Guthrie Fish Camp,’ ” but a “newly constructed unauthorized structure,” making Bell’s lawsuit a “sham pleading.” Under the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure, a plea is considered a sham when it is “palpably or inherently false, and from the plain or conceded facts in the case must have been known to the party interposing it to be untrue,” according to the document.

While the net camp was rebuilt differently each time it was damaged by a storm, depending on available materials and finances, it remained in the same place and is subject to the Butler Act, Semmer said.

The DEP’s answer also charges that Bell is trespassing on state submerged land and asks the court to enjoin Bell from further trespass, eject Bell from the submerged land and rule that the state owns the submerged land.

Hearings have not yet been set in the cases.

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