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Distant Neighbors

To put it mildly, Richard Bliss disapproves of the hulking airplane hangar a neighbor is building
Steve Satterwhite

Richard Bliss found paradise in 1977. That was the year he bought a large parcel of land in the Biscayne Gardens neighborhood of North Miami-Dade County. The property, a full acre and a quarter, was shaded by majestic oak trees and sloped gently to the shoreline of a large manmade lake. Bliss liked the fact that the previous owner of the land was doo-wop king Dion DiMucci of Dion and the Belmonts, noted for his hits "A Teenager in Love," "Runaround Sue," and "The Wanderer."

At 15180 S. River Dr., Bliss fashioned his Eden on the swath of green he christened "Sherwood Forest," after Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men. He posted a wooden sign with the name carved into it on the electric gate out front. The greeting on his answering machine was courtesy of "Little John."

When Bliss built his rustic ranch house there in the early Eighties he did the construction work himself, with a little help from friends. Unlike the properties on either side, where the houses were located close to the road, Bliss placed his dream home near the water. (Each of the three lots is 100 feet wide by roughly 500 feet deep.) From the kitchen window at the rear of the house, Bliss had a sweeping view of the 460-acre lake and the pines that rimmed the opposite shore. And when he walked out his front door, a tree-shaded panorama greeted him. Because no fences separated the three neighbors' properties, the visual effect was that of an expansive estate. "It was kind of like my little piece of country in the middle of the metropolis," Bliss says.

Working all day as an elevator mechanic in high-rise buildings around the county, Bliss looked forward to returning each evening to the refuge of his verdant property. It provided balance in his life. He'd grown up on the Housatonic River in the small town of Shelton, Connecticut, and if he squinted just a little, he could envision Sherwood Forest as a return to childhood happiness.

Now, some 23 years after establishing his tranquil retreat, Bliss says it's under attack. The quiet lakefront is bustling with activity that verges on congestion. Once-friendly neighbors have become enemies. Supposedly helpful county bureaucrats have conspired against him. He feels compelled to patrol the perimeter of his property, conducting photographic surveillance. Confrontations have turned violent. Dog poop has been slung.

Worst of all, though, is the fact that Bliss now faces a huge gray monstrosity where once there was green lawn. A next-door neighbor is building a "storage shed" twice as big as Bliss's own house and has plunked it down in such a way that it blocks views and looms like an angry thunderhead.

In a word, it is war.

Like many neighborhood battles, this one began as a low-intensity conflict that spun out of control. Along the way, Bliss says, he merely sought to have his neighbors live within the law, as he did -- or at least as he thought he was doing.

The neighbor building the storage shed on the south side of Bliss's property is Egerton Anderson, owner of a business called Ultralight Adventures, which operates on Virginia Key near the Rickenbacker Causeway. He bought his three-bedroom waterfront home in late 1996. Bliss had reason to think Anderson would be a good neighbor; in fact he had owned that adjoining property and sold it to Anderson.

Bliss, 51 years old, and Anderson, age 41, had become friends several years earlier when the ultralight enthusiast needed a place to store his planes. Bliss, who had purchased the southern property in order to keep it from being developed, happily made it available to Anderson. He recalls speaking with Anderson about his desire to guard his Valhalla against urban encroachment. The two seemed to understand one another. So when Bliss decided to sell the property, Anderson was the logical choice.

For more than three years the two neighbors maintained cordial relations. Then in the spring of 1999, Bliss noticed unusual activity on Anderson's property. Excavation crews dug out part of Anderson's back yard. A parade of trucks began hauling in fill dirt. Some months later, finally overcome with curiosity, Bliss took a peek at the building permit posted on Anderson's front door. What he read left him stunned.

By then Bliss was already having problems with his new neighbor to the north. In July 1999 Jonathan Weiss had bought the three-bedroom home on the opposite side of Bliss's property. Initially the two enjoyed sharing a few beers, which came naturally as they had something in common: Both loved to water ski, Bliss favoring slalom skis and Weiss the newer sport of wakeboarding.

But when Bliss realized that 28-year-old Weiss was offering wakeboarding lessons from the property, he became alarmed. It wasn't just the swarms of visitors that bothered Bliss. After all, years ago it was common for him to host 30 or more friends for Sunday afternoons of water skiing. The real problem with Weiss's activities, he says, was shoreline erosion. The Miami Wake and Ski Club, which Weiss called his operation, kicked up an excessive amount of turbulence on the lake owing to the high speeds boats travel in order to pull wakeboarders. Turbulence exacerbates erosion.

In October 1999 Bliss thought his problems were solved when, at his request, a county code-enforcement officer visited Sherwood Forest. (Biscayne Gardens is located in unincorporated Miami-Dade County.) According to Bliss, the inspector assured him that Anderson's shed would be removed and Weiss's ski school would be shut down. But when January 2000 rolled around and nothing had changed, Bliss began to correspond with county bureaucrats, hoping to enlist aid and form alliances. As he is fond of noting, that is how corporate trainer Richard Hatch ended up the winner on the television show Survivor: He forged alliances.

But instead of helping Bliss with his perceived problems, county officials have turned up the heat on the entire neighborhood after years of a laissez-faire approach toward life there. And so far, it seems, Bliss has suffered the most. Code enforcers warned him this past May and again in August about various violations, among them storing three boats and a jet ski on his property (only one boat is allowed), constructing a flag pole without a permit (Bliss defiantly flies the "Don't Tread on Me" banner), and building a utility shed and a boathouse without county approval. Having the county's henchmen turn on him has infuriated Bliss, especially when, as he contends, his next-door neighbors have been flagrantly violating much more serious county codes. The harassment, he believes, is nothing less than a form of intimidation designed to dissuade him from contacting officials about his neighbors' infractions. "I guess that's what happens to a whistleblower," Bliss says through gritted teeth.

Take Jonathan Weiss to the north. Bliss asserts that the ski club operator keeps four boats on his property, yet the county hasn't cited him for that infraction. This past June, when Bliss attempted to discuss Weiss's use of a dock Bliss had built between their properties, Weiss allegedly punched him and Bliss wound up in the lake. Although Weiss was fined $550 in August for illegally operating a business on residential property, Bliss claims he continues to do so. Weiss says the fine was the result of a miscommunication. The Miami Wake and Ski Club, he explains, is a nonprofit organization, not a business. A county official, who says she was quoted prices for lessons when she called for information, mistook the Miami Wake and Ski Club for Weiss's Miami Wakeboard Camp, Inc., a for-profit business he operates from an office in Miami Beach.

As for Bliss's southern neighbor Egerton Anderson, the friendly bond the two enjoyed was torn asunder after Anderson decided he needed a shed in which to store his ultralight planes and other recreation gear. Referring to the structure as a "storage shed," however, doesn't quite do justice to the 4200-square-foot behemoth Anderson is constructing down by the water, within 50 feet of Bliss's house.

Bliss complains that the building is twice as large as his four-bedroom home and nearly four times larger than Anderson's. "I have really big toys," shrugs Anderson, pointing to three disassembled ultralight aircraft, a Jet Ski, and a kayak currently stacked against the back wall of his house. Besides, Anderson points out, generous county codes for back-yard construction would have allowed him to raise a humongous 12,400-square-foot building if he had wanted to.

"What he did, he found a loophole [in county zoning codes] big enough to fly an airplane through," Bliss snorts.

Since January of last year Bliss has single-mindedly devoted himself to dismantling Anderson's shed, literally and figuratively. As evidence of his pursuit he displays a three-ring binder brimming with correspondence to Team Metro neighborhood problem solvers, the county Department of Planning and Zoning, and county Commissioner Betty Ferguson. For good measure, in February he began including information about Weiss's ski club activities.

Before he could hope to defeat Anderson, Bliss first had to convince the county that ultralight aircraft are not recreational vehicles and should not be stored in a residential zone. That issue dominated correspondence from early January until late July, when Deborah Curtin, director of the county's Team Metro, wrote Bliss a letter agreeing that ultralights are not recreational vehicles but aircraft and therefore cannot be stored in a residential area. (Bliss goes further in claiming that because Anderson uses the planes for his business, Ultralight Adventures, they actually are commercial vehicles.)

In June Anderson was fined $500 for storing aircraft on residential property. Bliss's victory, though, was short-lived. Anderson recently had the fine overturned in court. (According to Assistant County Attorney Rashmi Airan, that decision will soon be appealed.)

Ironically the ultralights stored on the property themselves don't bother Bliss so much. It's the shed that bugs him. "It's like somebody just plopped a warehouse down next to my window," he fumes. "It used to be nice green grass and a view of the lake. Now it is like fog out there in the morning. Only that's not fog. It's cement block."

Anderson says he might have considered locating the shed more toward the middle of his property, thus preserving his neighbor's views, if Bliss hadn't declared war against him. "If at any point in the beginning he had been up-front and not acted in such a hypocritical manner, we might have been able to solve any differences," Anderson offers. "The basis of our relationship has been that we are neighbors. Instead of talking to me, his approach has been to call the authorities on me. I found out his friendship was not honest. I didn't know I was dealing with the enemy."

Northern neighbor Jonathan Weiss recently made an attempt to solve his dispute with Bliss by erecting a fence between their two properties. Not only would that shield his ski club, it would protect his guests from Bliss's dog Meeko, who reportedly has bitten several ski club members. Weiss says that when he attempted to talk with Bliss about Meeko, Bliss snidely responded that the dog had lived there before Weiss moved in.

Anderson adds that he has had a similar problem with Bliss's dog, and that he also received the same snide response. After one heated canine discussion, Anderson grabbed a shovel and began slinging Meeko poop from his property up against Bliss's house.

Bliss remains unapologetic. "At what point do you stand up?" he asks. "I draw the line at what is right. I draw the line at where the county statutes say the line is."

If there is a line, it's a time line -- at least according to 27-year-old Earl Jenkins, head coach at the Miami Wake and Ski Club. "Times change," Jenkins muses. "It's not 1985 any more, dude. You've got to pass the torch. It's 2001."


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