Battling City Hall

(WSVN) - They say their coquina wall has a gray look to it. The city said ‘No, that’s mildew,’ and the fines started pilling up. It’s a Plantation couple’s battle that they say may not be about the wall but a vendetta against them, and it’s why they called Help Me Howard with Patrick Fraser.

When Elisabeth and her husband Barry walk around their neighborhood, it’s hard to find someone they don’t know.

Elisabeth Small, battling fines and lien: “I am the President of the Jacaranda Country Club West Association, so I know everybody, everybody knows me.”

And for 15 years when there is a battle to be fought for the residents, Elisabeth says she is always willing to step forward.

Elisabeth Small: “It’s a headache, but I enjoy it. It’s my community involvement … and I enjoy it.”

Then in 2015, Plantation hit her with a problem she could not solve.

Elisabeth Small: “We got a notice from the City of Plantation that we had excess mildew on our house. We were like, ‘What mildew do we have?'”

A code enforcement officer was driving by and saw this coquina wall that had been here for over 20 years…

Elisabeth Small: “Coquina is a natural fossil from the ocean. You get it in a rock formation, then they cut it into slabs and use it for indoor or outdoor decoration.”

The violation said there was mildew on the front of the house. Elisabeth and Barry say that’s not mildew. Their coquina has a gray look to it.

Patrick Fraser: “That looks like mold, but then when you look in it, it’s the same color inside. It’s the shadows.”

Elisabeth Small: “That’s correct.”

But the Smalls did what they were told.

Elisabeth Small: “They asked us to pressure clean it … we did. It looks the same as it does before, as it does now.”

The Smalls said the they headed back to the city’s magistrate and when he heard the wall looked the same … their problem got worse.

Elisabeth Small: “‘I don’t care that you pressure cleaned it. You’re in violation, and it starts now — you need to pay.'”

The fines started, and when we talked to the Smalls in October, they were still climbing.

Elisabeth Small: “Today we get fined $1,500 a month, and that started in June of 2015. And today, we are in excess of over $42,000 in fines and they have a lien on our house.”

The Smalls were stunned ’till Elisabeth starting thinking about the powerful developers and politicians in Plantation she had battled.

Elisabeth Small: “I think it was maybe a personal vendetta against me.”

And the Smalls said their fears seemed to be confirmed after the first two lawyers they tried to hire to fight the city said no and gave them a warning.

Elisabeth Small: “They can’t take the case. The word on the street is for you to move. They said they want you out of the City of Plantation.”

Elisabeth and Barry won’t move out and won’t pay the fine over a coquina wall they say has no mildew at all.

Elisabeth Small: “All the taxes we have paid, and all the community work we have done. It’s actually disappointing. Very dismayed and disappointed.”

Well Howard, how do you fight city hall?

Howard Finkelstein, 7News legal expert: “If this is a code enforcement issue, you have to depend on the magistrate not automatically taking the side of the city who pays them. If they do, you lose. If this is political retribution and they are intentionally violating Elisabeth’s rights, that could be a crime, but proving it can be difficult.”

I spoke to the officer who oversees code enforcement in Plantation. He said he could guarantee this had nothing to do with politics at all…

He said the wall wasn’t power washed in 2015 but was only washed off.

The Smalls said no, they watched the power washing…

Then late last year, the Smalls had it power washed as part of their occasional sprucing up of their home.

The before and after pictures might not look much different to you but it does to Plantation.

The city then wiped all the fines out and released the lien on their home…

Elisabeth Small: “Absolutely, we are glad we won. It’s a relief.”

In exchange for the fines being wiped out, Elisabeth promised not to criticize the city’s handling of the coquina wall anymore, but that doesn’t mean she won’t be ready to fight for her neighbors if she is needed…

Elisabeth Small: “I have always been a fighter for our neighborhood and for the surrounding neighborhoods.”

We always say you can fight city hall. We never said it would be easy though, and that’s one of the reasons we created Help Me Howard to help you fight.

Hit a wall battling a problem? Left you feeling gray? Contact us. And let us wash your hands of it.

Reporter: Patrick Fraser at
Miami-Dade: 305-953-WSVN
Broward: 954-761-WSVN

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