Hillsborough county votes to explore suspending fines for Bearss Groves Farmer's Market

It's not within the power of the commission to suspend $160,000 in back-owed fines. But they're exploring options.

click to enlarge A worker at Bearss Groves stocks the shelves. - JUSTIN GARCIA
Justin Garcia
A worker at Bearss Groves stocks the shelves.
After receiving more than 1,000 emails from concerned residents, Hillsborough County Commissioners voted unanimously today to explore options for suspending fines for Bearss Groves Farmer's Market.

What the commissioners really wanted to do was vote to stop the $200 a day fine, along with suspending $160,000 in back-owed fees. But they were informed during the meeting that it was not within their power to do that.

In 2018, a code enforcement special magistrate ruled in favor of code enforcement officer's claims that the farmer's market was in code violation. The produce stand has faced mounting fines since then, and last Friday put out a call for help on Facebook, claiming the  stand is in danger of shutting down due to the fines.
The commissioners were told today by Dexter Barge, assistant administrator for the county, that for anything to be changed, the case would have to come back before the magistrate.

When commissioner Ken Hagan asked Barge if the county can look into the code and the ruling to see what can be done about the situation, Barge said, "Absolutely, I have no problem doing that."

Five other commissioners agreed with Hagan and a motion to explore ways to end the fines for Bearss Groves passed unanimously, with commissioner Kimberly Overman being absent from the vote.

Earlier this week, Creative Loafing Tampa Bay reported that Hagan and ownership at Bearss Groves argued that the fees imposed on the produce stand are unjust, because the stand could possibly be protected from regular county rules under two state laws—Florida's Greenbelt Law and a nonresidential farm buildings statute.

Hagan, who frequents the stand regularly, said more needs to be done to protect it.

"I think every commissioner on this board has defended independent in mom and pop businesses and how we should help protect them and help them prosper," he said. "Even our comprehensive plan identifies incentives and objectives to specifically support and encourage agriculture."

Not one commissioner disagreed with Hagan.

All the commissioners present weighed in, calling for troubleshooting in how to protect the stand and end the fees.

Pat Kemp acknowledged the community's concerns and said the stand isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

"I think uniformly people love farmers markets and want to do everything they can to see them thrive," Kemp said. "That being said, I just want to assure the public that no one is shutting down Bearss Groves. We're not even anywhere near that."

Commissioner Stacy White lamented the fact that the commission couldn't vote on the spot to end the fines and move forward. "It's to me just mind boggling that we, as the elected officials are not the final arbiters on these issue," he said.

In the end, the commissioners voted to explore adjusting county regulations and to contact the county magistrate about the 2018 decision, along with examining ways that Bearss Groves to comply with code enforcement's demands.

But owner Barry Lawrance told CL that he stands by the fact that the charges are unjust. "They're unjust fees, and that's why we continue to fight them," Lawrance said.

About The Author

Justin Garcia

Justin Garcia previously wrote for the USA Today Network, The Economic Hardship Reporting Project, Scalawag Magazine, and various other news outlets. When he's not writing, Justin likes to make music, read, play basketball and spend time with loved ones. 


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