Cortez net camp tangled in lawsuits

Cortez net camp tangled in lawsuits
Net camps in Sarasota Bay off Cortez in 1926, east of the present Guthrie camp. - Burgert Brothers/Hillsborough County Public Library | Submitted

CORTEZ – Junior Guthrie’s net camp is safe – for now.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) won a summary judgment against Raymond Guthrie Jr. in 12th Judicial Circuit Court in Bradenton this month to force him to demolish the 1200-square-foot structure that he built in May 2017 on submerged land in Sarasota Bay.

Guthrie claims he was entitled to rebuild the net camp on the submerged land, south of the fishing village of Cortez, because his family of commercial fishermen had maintained a series of net camps there to mend, clean and store fishing gear for several generations.

The DEP claims he built the structure illegally without a permit on state-owned submerged lands.

Cortez net camp tangled in lawsuits
The Guthrie net camp in Sarasota Bay off Cortez in February 2019. – Cindy Lane | Sun

But while DEP won a victory, the case is not over – Judge Edward Nicholas stayed the demolition order and fines until a lawsuit filed last year by A.P. Bell Fish Co. is concluded.

A.P. Bell President Karen Bell claims that the structure and the submerged land belong to her company, a fish house on land north of Guthrie’s structure, basing her claim on 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The law was repealed in the 1950s but continues to affect title to submerged lands that were improved with structures prior to its repeal.

DEP maintains that the Butler Act does not apply to the case because it requires the structure built over the submerged land to have been continuously connected to the upland property, and that the Guthrie family’s structures were freestanding.

Net camps used by commercial fishermen in other Florida counties, including Charlotte, Lee and Pasco, have been legally rebuilt under the Florida Forever Act, Bell said, adding that she has asked state Sen. Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton) to take legislative action to preserve Guthrie’s structure.

The case is set for trial in April.