- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 6, 2005

SURFSIDE, Fla. (AP) — Daniel and Brigitte Degrave left France for South Florida five years ago, attracted to a quaint beach town where they could own a home just blocks from the shore.

Surfside’s combination of small-town shopping, restaurants and proximity to the beaches charmed the Degraves’ friends and family members who visited from France, leading them to buy homes.

But beginning last March, the paradise turned nightmarish when the six homes were hit with a series of code violations, totaling more than $50,000 a day. The Degraves were stunned when they were fined for using the properties for short-term vacation rentals and for alterations that purportedly made their homes unsafe.

A year later, their dispute rages on and the daily fines continue to mount, totaling more than $20 million in penalties, or about eight times the properties’ value. Legal fees have topped $800,000, but the couple plans to fight on amid fears the homes are being driven into foreclosure.

“We have no choice,” Mr. Degrave said during a recent tour of one of the homes. “If we stop, they win.”

The Degraves and other homeowners in this neatly kept beach community of 4,500 just north of Miami have aired their outrage over the fines on the Internet and with large signs in front of their homes that keep a running total of the accumulated fines. They contend the fines are being used as a cash cow and to drive out some homeowners.

The FBI has received boxes of documents from several residents asking them to investigate the town’s conduct. Neither the bureau’s Miami spokeswoman nor Town Attorney Stephen Cypen would comment on whether the FBI was involved.

But during a deposition in November by the Degraves’ lawyer, former code enforcement officer Chris Masciatti acknowledged he had “multiple” phone conversations with the FBI and had met with agents three times. Mr. Masciatti, who signed off on the violations, resigned last fall. He declined comment.

Mr. Cypen said the town has uniformly enforced the code in order to maintain the community’s appearance and ensure public safety. He said the families always can bring their homes up to standard. Mr. Cypen dismissed complaints about the fines, which he said the town “always mitigates it in the end.”

“I don’t think they’re any steeper than other municipalities,” he said, adding that “the town’s ultimate goal is compliance, not collecting fines except to the extent which is necessary.”

Code violation battles are not unusual. But many don’t involve fines that balloon into the millions of dollars and foreclosure.

In Coral Gables, a nearby community known for its strict building codes, the city’s fines reach $250 per individual violation and sometimes can run into the thousands of dollars, said Martha Salazar-Blanco, the city’s zoning administrator. But some violators receive extensions while they try to fix the problem.

“Our objective to the whole thing is not to fine them and make it a big fine, but to fix the problem instead of fining them thousands of dollars,” Miss Salazar-Blanco said.

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