The small, sleepy city of Dunedin, which proudly tells everyone it’s the home of Honeymoon Island, is having anything but a honeymoon with the media right now.
Dunedin finds itself in the crosshairs of unfair, knee-jerk local and national media attention after imposing nearly $30,000 in fines for code enforcement violations by a local homeowner.
The breathless “investigative” stories that have run so far have taken on the tone of an avenging angel, posturing the homeowner, James Ficken, as an elderly man in danger of losing his home due to a slightly overgrown lawn while handling matters related to a family member’s death two years earlier.
Instead of looking at the real issue — how one or two horrible neighbors can ruin the value (both aesthetic and economic) of a fine Pinellas community — these media outlets took the easy bait and manufactured stories that are slanted, poorly researched and, frankly, wrong.
It’s not real journalism — because it ignores or bends the facts and the truth to support a false narrative.
When you mow through the facts to find out what’s crawling under those tall weeds, another picture emerges, as it so often does.
It turns out that public records show Ficken is an experienced real estate investor, owning residential and commercial properties in multiple communities (besides Dunedin) through a series of trusts.
Ficken has owned rental properties since the 1990s and has a long history of code violations and other concerning issues.
In the case of a Clearwater property, according to public records available with Pinellas County Clerk of Court, he racked up $2,000 in fines by the Harbor Bluffs Homeowners Association that grew to nearly $12,000 after he neglected to resolve issues for two years. Even that didn’t seem to get his attention, since he resolved the case and paid all fines only after Pinellas County finally started the foreclosure process on the property.
In Marion County, court records show that in 2004, County Code Enforcement said Ficken failed to comply with necessary repairs to a Lake Weir property he owned since 1995.
Code Enforcement deemed it an unsafe building.
You wouldn’t know any of that from some of the hyperventilating media reports, which have savaged Dunedin for, well, doing its job responsibly to protect its law-abiding residents and reasonable, well-established community standards by which nearly all good citizens readily abide.
“We are completely in support of the city and the Code Enforcement Board,” said Pam Pravetz, president of the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce. “These kinds of rules are put in place to keep our town beautiful and delightful, a place where we all want to live and do business. If everyone else is supposed to follow rules, this person needs to follow rules, too.”
The Florida League of Cities agrees: “The central role of municipal government is to maintain the city as somewhere people want to live and work, and code enforcement is a common tool cities use to uphold community standards and protect property values,” said Mike Sittig, Executive Director.
Michael Lyn Bryant runs the Dunedin Brewery, which his father started 23 years ago. He grew up in Dunedin, and he wants to see local codes upheld.
“It would be unfair for a single individual to get away with something when the rest of us are following the law,” Bryant said. “When you are part of a neighborhood, ultimately you would want to have a good community with your neighbors. But when you have someone who is regularly offending his neighbors, I would call that a bad neighbor.”
In fact, cities neglecting that responsibility can cause property values to plummet.
A 2013 study by the Appraisal Institute documented that neighbors who fail to properly care for their own homes — allowing yards to overgrow, bad smells to develop, or property to fall into disrepair — can cause the value of adjacent homes to drop by 5 to 10 percent or more.
I get that codes have to be enforced if a city is going to avoid sinking into a cesspool. Bad neighbors are just that, and they don’t deserve to be portrayed as poor victims of government because they reaped the consequences of their negligence.
The Ficken files are thicker than some media accounts have unfairly reported — and they underscore Dunedin city officials’ proper path to hold him accountable for chronic violations.
Ficken’s choice to sue the city will likely be decided in a court of law, eventually. But folks following this saga in the court of public opinion should balance misleading media accounts with the undeniable truth that he has a track record of being a persistent code violator and a poor neighbor.