ISLAMORADA -- The village could soon move to enforce a 2011 order that hotelier Paul Bates close the bed-and-breakfast that makes up part of his Coconut Cove Resort, following a favorable opinion from the state's lead fire marshal.
In a Nov. 5 declaratory statement, the office of State Fire Marshal Jeff Atwater wrote that the 11-room bed-and-breakfast that Bates operates at the Windley Key resort is subject to regulation as a hotel by the Islamorada Fire Department.
The statement from the office of Atwater, who also is Florida's chief financial officer, came in response to a series of questions submitted by Islamorada Fire Chief William Wagner III, whose department in August 2011 ordered Bates to vacate the bed-and-breakfast.
"Now that we have the ruling from the state fire marshal we are going to go ahead and start enforcing the order of non-use," Wagner said Monday.
Atwater's statement also comes as a contempt of court action filed by Bates against the village in 2011 lingers before Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Luis Garcia. Bates, who has waged four unsuccessful campaigns for a seat on the Village Council, has been duking it out with the village over the legal status of Coconut Cove for more than a decade.
At the core of this current dispute is the bed-and-breakfast. Bates says it is legal because the village issued a certificate of single-family residential occupancy for the building in 2003. Then, in 2004, the state licensed it as bed-and-breakfast.
But the village says that Bates never received approval to use the building as a lodging establishment. Also, because Bates is using the home as a bed-and-breakfast, he is subject to the same fire codes that apply to hotels and motels. The building has several fire code deficiencies, the Islamorada Fire Department found in a May 2011 inspection, including the lack of an automatic sprinkler system.
In the declaratory statement, Atwater deputy Jay Etheridge agreed with the village's position.
"In this instance, the building was originally occupied as a single-family residence and therefore was categorized under a residential occupancy," he wrote. "Once the building was licensed as a bed-and-breakfast and met the definition of a hotel ..., the building's categorization of occupancy changed."
The village's demand that Bates close the bed-and-breakfast until he gets approvals to use the building as a lodge has put him in a regulatory vice.
Under state growth regulations, the village cannot approve the development of additional hotel and motel units in Islamorada. Adding to Bates' problems, the village passed an ordinance in 2005 that made bed-and-breakfasts illegal in all zoning districts.
Bates says that ordinance was specifically targeted at him, as there are no other bed-and-breakfasts in the village.
Asked about the state fire marshal's opinion last week, Bates said Atwater and his officers had been led astray by the village, which sought the statement to bolster its politically motivated efforts to shut down Coconut Cove.
"This has nothing to do with fire safety," Bates wrote in an email to the Free Press. "It's all about destroying my reform movement, preventing my elections runs and putting me out of business."
What he characterized as selective enforcement undertaken by the village at the behest of village attorney Nina Boniske and her Weiss Serota law firm has led him to consider filing a new federal civil rights suit against the town, "which will cost us all millions."
Boniske did not respond to numerous phone calls for comment. Village officials have long maintained that the town is enforcing village and state code, not targeting Bates.