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FL: Should the city allow private squatters?

Historic City News has been investigating an apparent encroachment on city-owned property at what is arguably the center of heritage tourism for millions of visitors every year.

Our reporters observed a “snipe” sign, a corrugated plastic sign on a wire frame, planted on the south side of the Visitor Information Center that attracted our attention. Prior to the General Election this month, campaign signs of similar appearance littered the roadways and occasionally made their way into our historic preservation districts.

On closer examination, since the political campaigns are over for the moment, we discovered that this particular snipe sign wasn’t a campaign sign at all — it was a semi-permanent advertisement for Colonial St. Augustine Foundation, Inc., soliciting the public to visit their website and to spend $100.00 or $300.00 to “buy a brick”.

According to the Foundation’s website, the inscribed bricks are placed in the red brick patio surrounding the Coquina Ball located at the southeastern corner of the Visitor Information Center at 10 West Castillo Drive.

We spoke to Assistant City Manager Tim Burchfield after a call to City Attorney Isabelle Lopez, and confirmed that, aside from the unpermitted sign, City Hall knew about the “patio” — however, there exists no written contract between the City and the Foundation for its use.

Burchfield emphasized that the City owns the Visitor Information Center and the grounds up to the 200-year-old Huegonot Cemetery on the southeast corner. Burchfield says that former City Manager, Bill Harriss, made a “verbal agreement” between Bishop Concrete, the contractor that did the work on the Historic Downtown Parking Facility, and the former City Heritage Tourism Director, William R. Adams, Ph.D., that created the patio.

Since no written agreement exists, and a search of the minutes of St Augustine City Commission meeting minutes finds no resolution of the Commission for the land use, it is debatable who owns what and what rights, claims, or liabilities attach. It is not debatable that the City has, in fact, continued to maintain the patio area, sweep the bricks, cut the grass, keep the wrought iron bench serviceable, and absorb other associated costs.

Likewise, there is no agreement to pay rent to the City for the use of the property for fundraising purposes or the sale of bricks and an assortment of other memorabilia on the website advertised on the snipe sign.

300-VIC-GARAGE-VENDORSIn essence, with no formalized agreement between the parties, it appears that Colonial St Augustine Foundation, Inc., are squatters — no different than the vendors on other side of the traffic circle who set out their pop-up tents and hawk trinkets and glow sticks all day.

There is a difference, though. Besides the “good old boy” way of doing business under Harriss, outgoing mayor Joe Boles, and those at City Hall who paid more attention to “who you were” rather than “what you had to offer”, Colonial St Augustine Foundation, Inc., is advertising on their website that by buying a brick, the purchaser is able to “participate in the city’s 450th anniversary”, even though none of that money goes to the City or towards retiring the multi-million dollar extravagances, to date, for the 450th financial fiasco.

Further, according to the website, “when you buy a personalized brick, your name or the name of a loved one, or a message, will become a permanent part of the memorial patio.” If you are squatting on City property that doesn’t belong to you, how can you represent that the purchase is permanent? Maybe 450th Director Dana Ste. Claire, who was recruited by Harriss to replace Adams, will be selling “name space” on the Bridge of Lions after the 450th winds down in less than a year.

The Foundation also advertises, “The profits from the sale of the bricks help to pay for historic preservation projects within the colonial city.” Burchfield confirmed that, in years past, the Foundation paid for some cleaning to the Constitution Monument in the Plaza; but they have no continuing obligation to do so in the future. In the recent graffiti attack, the City paid for cleaning the Plaza obelisk without outside assistance.

Burchfield also confirmed that there are no performance standards or requirements of the Foundation to pay for any City “historic preservation projects” nor is there any accounting to the City for the money raised through website sales or otherwise. “I don’t know how much they make,” Burchfield told Historic City News editor Michael Gold this afternoon.

300-COLONIAL-STAU-FOUNDATIOSt Augustine has wrestled with its relationships with tax exempt organizations in the past — especially those “insider” non-profits that always seem to have their hands in the pockets of local taxpayers.

The incoming administration seems to be more expecting of government transparency, accountability, and open dealings in business relationships between the City of St Augustine and private enterprises. Burchfield said, now that he is aware of the situation, he will look into the advertising promises of the Foundation as well as the legal status of any verbal agreement between Bill Harriss and the beneficiaries of the brick patio at the eastern terminus of the Old Spanish Trail.

Photo: Internet search of Colonial St Augustine Foundation, Inc.
Photo credits: © 2014 Historic City News staff photographer

Michael Gold

St Augustine native, Michael Gold, is editor at Historic City News. He is an advocate for grassroots citizen journalism whose job is holding public figures accountable to the public. Founded on the Internet in March 2000, HCN has developed from a periodic newsletter, to an interactive platform, to a publication read by the area's most engaged citizens. Historic City News is focused on news originating from or having an impact on St Augustine and St Johns County. Contact by e-mail

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