NORTH REDINGTON BEACH — The town of North Redington Beach on May 1 reached a settlement with John Messmore, the owner of Sweet Sage Café, regarding the last unresolved segment of Messmore’s ongoing lawsuits against the town.
Messmore filed his first lawsuit against the town on Nov. 15, 2015, over signage, the next four over seating, and this last one just settled before it was scheduled to go to a jury trial in June.
The disputes with the town began when Messmore was ordered to remove decals of flip-flops from the exterior walls of his restaurant as well as a sign promoting cancer awareness that were in violation of the town’s comprehensive sign ordinance. Messmore argued that the town’s sign ordinance was in violation of the First Amendment. The judge agreed and Messmore won in 2017.
According to North Redington Beach Mayor Bill Queen, the town would have had to change its sign ordinance even if Messmore had not prevailed. In a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on June 18, 2015, regarding Reed v. Town of Gilbert (Arizona), a similar action was found in favor of the plaintiff. The ultimate result was that “towns and cities all across America would have to amend their signage codes,” said the mayor.
The next series of lawsuits Messmore brought against the town had to do with his restaurant being in violation of the town’s seating ordinance. This began in April 2018.
A magistrate involved in the case recommended that the town clarify its 2009 ordinance, which the town did at its August 2018 meeting by passing a new ordinance that detailed the methods for counting seats in bars, lounges, and restaurants. The seating ordinance prior to 2009 allowed a ratio of three seats for every one on-site parking space. The 2009 ordinance upgraded that to a ratio of four seats for every one on-site parking space due to the advent of services like Uber and Lyft, as well as the increase of customers walking or taking public transportation.
According to Messmore, the problem with the new detailed method for counting seats was not in the counting of the seats, but in the counting of the tables that identified all tables as having at least four seats even when the table was only a two-top. Messmore further complained that his restaurant was being targeted for code violations in retaliation for his previous signage lawsuit against the town when Code Enforcement showed up at his establishment three times in one week rather than the one time per year required for his business license.
Judge William F. Jung handed down a mixed ruling on March 29. The judge found in favor of the town regarding three of the suits, issued a decision in support of the plaintiff on another, and ordered a jury trial on the retaliation allegation.
The town prevailed in that the judge found there was no unreasonable search and seizure by the town and the sheriff, the town had the right to levy the business tax and enforce the seating ordinance, and there was no illegal trespass on the plaintiff’s property by the town.
However, the judge ruled that a section of the town’s business code was in violation of the Fourth Amendment, and also ordered the town to desist in warrantless inspections of Sweet Sage Café. The order to put the retaliation allegation before a jury trial meant that this wasn’t over yet.
The presiding judge, Jung, of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, was appointed by President Donald Trump and assumed the bench on Sept. 10, 2018. In a pro-business legal environment, the town decided to settle rather than risk the jury trial.
“One of our functions as a town commission is to balance the commercial district’s impact on the residential community,” said the mayor in a formal statement. “In an effort to help our businesses, we made many changes and concessions for our restaurants to allow them more seating than required by the parking ordinance. The sole reason for this ordinance was to balance the impact of parking in the residential areas while meeting the concerns of the businesses. Based on the court’s decision on inspections for seat counts, the commission decided the best course of action for the town was to settle the lawsuit with Sweet Sage.”
The settlement stipulates that the town of North Redington Beach will pay Messmore’s lawyers, Weber, Crab & Wein, PA, $75,000 for legal fees.
All Messmore’s cases against the town will be dropped. The town will be allowed one annual inspection of Sweet Sage Café with 30 days’ notice (for its business license), and Sweet Sage will be allowed 138 seats in its restaurant seating areas, according to a specific diagram attached to the settlement documents.
North Redington Beach has insurance through the Florida League of Cities that will pay for the $75,000 settlement. The town will begin workshops to rework the seating ordinance in the next few months to comply with the judge’s rulings.
Sweet Sage Café was permitted 47 seats prior to the town’s 2009 ordinance, 61 seats in the 2019 ordinance, and now 138 seats as a result of the current settlement.
“We (Sweet Sage Café) will never have seating over 100 (seats),” said Messmore.
“The (NRB) commission is made up of local residents whose motivation for serving is for the best interests of the entire town. We try to apply common sense to solving issues throughout the town for the benefit of the entire community,” said Queen.
“I have served as mayor for 15 years. This town has so many positive projects that are currently in progress or planned. It will be very gratifying to focus on these improvements and not litigation,” concluded the mayor.
One thing is certain. Both the town of North Redington Beach and John Messmore of Sweet Sage Café are glad the legal squabbling is over.
“I’m glad we’ve come to a resolve to put this behind us, so we can move our town in a more positive forward direction,” said Messmore. “I want to thank all the NRB residents who have contacted us in unanimous support as well as all our worldwide guests visiting NRB as a result of the Sweet Sage Café.”