NORTH REDINGTON BEACH — A dispute between the town and the Sweet Sage Café on Gulf Boulevard has been going on since 2014. Since then tens of thousands of dollars have been spent in legal fees and there is more to come.
The end, it seems, is now in sight.
The issue began in 2014 when café owner John Messmore was ordered to remove decals of flip-flops from a wall on the building. He was also told to remove a sign promoting cancer awareness.
“I refused to take it down and that’s when it started,” he said. “I was taken aback by it.”
“The flip-flops were determined to be graphics on the building.”
Since then, Messmore said he has been retaliated against by the town. From the sign issues to the number of seats allowed in his restaurant.
In 2016 Messmore launched a lawsuit against the town and the Sheriff’s Office, citing First Amendment rights retaliation relating to too frequent inspections over the seating issue and parking allotments.
“A lot of our parking went away with the widening of Gulf Boulevard yet we have never had a complaint about our parking, not a single one,” said Messmore. “In an effort to be part of the solution we bought an empty lot across the street. I was going to give it to the city for use after we closed each day at 2 p.m.”
According to Messmore, that plan didn’t work out because of conditions the city wanted to place on the property. The conditions would have prevented him from erecting statues or artwork on the property. He wouldn’t accept those conditions.
Messmore is now putting a building on the site.
A judge from the District Court of the Middle District of Florida recently handed down some judgments in the case with some still to come.
In essence the court ruled that the town had to remove some language from its business tax applications and permanently banned town inspectors from entering the restaurant without a warrant.
Still to come is a ruling on whether or not the town deliberately retaliated against Messmore and Sweet Sage. That issue will come before a jury in June of this year.
When asked why the town would want to retaliate against him, Messmore said he had no idea.
“That would be a question you would have to ask the mayor,” he said. “I don’t understand why. We’ve been so successful in bringing many people into the community. So many people say when they come here they have to visit the Sweet Sage. They are happy and having a good time.”
Mayor Bill Queen said it was premature to comment on the lawsuit until it is over. He said he would talk about it then.
Town Attorney Jay Daigneault did not return calls seeking comment.
Messmore said his family has lived in North Redington Beach since 1953 and nobody loves the town more than he does. He wants the dispute to be over.
“I don’t want to go on with this nonsense,” he said. “I love the city; I would do anything to help the city.
Yet the lawsuit remains on the books to be dealt with in June.
“We have already rung up over $100,000 in legal fees which the town will have to pay,” said Messmore. “There will be more on top of that before this is all over.”
”I am not going to be bullied.”