Tampa's Bearss Groves Farmer's Market says its on the verge of shutting down due to county fines

Management at the stand says that the county has fined them $200 per day since 2018.

click to enlarge Bearss Groves' entrance sign - JUSTIN GARCIA
Justin Garcia
Bearss Groves' entrance sign

Last Friday, Bearss Groves Farmer's Market sent out a cry a for help. On its Facebook page, the market claimed the produce stand is in danger of being shut down due to county fines.

"The County Code Enforcement Department is close to shutting us down," ownership at the 29-year-old stand wrote. They included a link to contact the board of county commissioners, asking supporters to oppose the fines.

Management at the stand says that the county has fined them $200 per day since late 2018, because the county doesn't acknowledge them as an agricultural stand.

A 2019 Tampa Bay Times article outlined the dispute between the stand's owner, Barry Lawrance, and the county. Hillsborough County authorities said at the time that the iconic roadside stand never got the permissions it needed to operate, a site development plan or permits for its structures.
Lawrance, who has owned the stand since 2008 after purchasing it from the Bearss family, claimed that he doesn't need to file the plans and permits with the county because his business is part of an agricultural operation. Florida's Greenbelt Law helps  protect agricultural operations from certain taxes and rules that other types of businesses face.

But the county claimed that Lawrance would have to revamp the market, including rebuilding the stand's main wooden building, in order for it to fit within the state law guidelines.

An employee at the market named Isabella Baker told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay this morning that the stand should be protected under the Greenbelt Law, because the stand should be classified as a greenbelt establishment.

"The county is saying that this establishment isn't protected by it," Baker said. "But we have the right to disagree."
click to enlarge A worker refills produce at Bearss Groves, which sells an array of fruits, vegetables, herbs and other goods. - JUSTIN GARCIA
Justin Garcia
A worker refills produce at Bearss Groves, which sells an array of fruits, vegetables, herbs and other goods.
Barry Lawrance returned CL's request for comment after this story was published. He said that the county is also refusing to acknowledge another state statute regarding nonresidential farm buildings, which would also protect the farm from the county codes that are being enforced against the market.

Lawrance said that all told, he owes more than $160,000 in fees to the county.

"But they're unjust fees, and that's why we've been fighting them," Lawrance told CL.

He and the employees at the market are not alone in their stance.

County agenda meetings show that the subject is up for discussion at this Wednesday's board of county commissioners meeting. Commissioner Ken Hagan added an item to, "Discuss options for suspending the accrual of fines resulting from a dispute over the appropriate use of an agricultural stand."

During a phone call, Hagan confirmed his intent to push for the dismissal of the accrued fees, and said he will ask that the county find a way to stop harming farmers markets and produce stands through what he sees as unjust rules and fees.

Baker, who started working at the market four years ago, said that the original 2018 complaints about fans running in a market greenhouse were made by a person in a neighboring development. She said those issues have since been squashed and that Bearss doesn't receive complaints anymore. She wonders why code enforcement is still fining them for their operation.

"Personally, I think it's like they just want the property," she said.

A search of the county's code enforcement cases supports Baker's claim that complaints have not been coming in. The most recent complaint on the county's site is from 2019, when Bearss Groves was cited by the county for improper use of the area, and "accessory structure setbacks" which Baker said refers to the wooden housing that all of the produce sits under. The only other citation on the county's website is from 2018, for similar issues including a lack of permitting and planning at the site.

CL reached out to the county's code enforcement division but has not yet received a response. This post will be updated when one comes in.
click to enlarge The Live Oak on Bearss Groves property. - JUSTIN GARCIA
Justin Garcia
The Live Oak on Bearss Groves property.
Bearss Groves was opened in 1993, making it almost 30 years old. But there's an even older piece of Tampa history on the property—a massive live oak that management says may be over 400 years old. Baker hopes the tree, along with the business will be protected from any kind of development on the property should ownership not be able to keep up with fines.

Community support is behind them, too. Their Facebook post already has close to 400 shares, and over 130 comments.

"We're a local produce stand, and we've been serving the area for so long, I don't understand why we have to go through this," she said.

UPDATED: Updated at 4:30 p.m. with input from Lawrance and Commissioner Hagan.