ST. PETE BEACH - What’s in a name? St. Pete Beach commissioners learned a tiki hut by any other name, such as a chickee hut, can be built without a permit.

During the city’s regular May 8 commission meeting, City Attorney Andrew Dickman told commissioners some residents are using a loophole in state law, governing building codes, to install structures known as chickee huts and avoid local building permit requirements.

Chickee is the word Seminole Indians used for house. In the 1990s the federal government signed a treaty with Native American Indian tributes allowing them to build their traditional chickee huts exempt from local building regulations. The move was designed as part of reparations afforded Indian tribes mistreated by the nation and settlers in the 1800s.

The chickee style of architecture was used by Native Americans on the run in the 1820s and 1830s, when President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act devised to remove and relocate Native Americans from Florida to west of the Mississippi River.

In recent years tiki huts, which evolved from and look much like chickee huts, have been constructed as pool side and backyard attractions but regulated by building codes.

To circumvent local building code restrictions, some homeowners attempt to use an exemption in the Florida Building Code that allows chickee huts to be built without a permit.

Dickman told commissioners during a code enforcement hearing he became aware of how some residents used the loophole in the law to circumvent local permit requirements.

A resident built a chickee hut with a tiled bar, chairs and electricity, much more like the modern day tiki hut, and was taken before code enforcement.

However, when the homeowner appealed to the Florida Building Commission, asking for a declaratory judgment that the chickee hut was exempt from permit requirements, the structure was granted approval, Dickman said.

The city attorney advised St. Pete Beach was never notified of the state hearing, so it had no opportunity to appeal the decision. In addition, there was no requirement on the part of the homeowner to notify the Building Commission that the chickee hut was part of a local code enforcement action.

He said if the city were able to appeal it would have noted that the structure in question does not meet the spirit or letter of the law.

The Florida Building Code states; “Chickees considered exempt are constructed by the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida or the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The term “chickee” means an open-sided wooden hut that has a thatched roof of palm or palmetto or other traditional materials, and that does not incorporate any electrical, plumbing, or other nonwood features.”

Commissioner Melinda Pletcher said she has heard of other instances where people have constructed chickee huts, even on easements, to avoid permit requirements.

Florida cities have tried different methods of regulating chickee huts. Some cities like Boynton Beach point out “a chickee hut is exempt from the permitting process, but not exempt from zoning district regulations.”

Boynton Beach requires “an applicant to request a zoning verification letter. With the zoning verification request the applicant must submit a site plan or survey, with scaled dimensioning of the structure, “along with proof that the builder is a member of either the Miccosukee or Seminole Tribe. This shall be evidenced by a copy of the tribal member’s identification card.”  

Marco Island permits “chickees in rear yard setback areas by the approval of a conditional use permit. Chickees may not be enclosed, must be constructed of natural materials, may not obstruct the view or interfere with the privacy of an adjacent neighbor, and may be used only to provide shade or serve as a decorative architectural element. Chickees may not be used as a carport, storage shed, boat shelter, or the like.”

In Miami Dade County, Chickees require a zoning improvement permit, established to ensure that certain land uses now exempt from the Florida Building Code remain in compliance with the zoning code.

Pinellas County defines chickees, exempt from state and local building codes, “as constructed by the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida or the Seminole Tribe of Florida … an open-sided wooden hut that has a thatched roof of palm or palmetto or other traditional materials, and that does not incorporate any electrical, plumbing, or other nonwood features.”

St. Pete Beach commissioners agreed with the city attorney’s suggestion to ask the Building Commission for its declaratory interpretation of chickee hut that can be utilized by the city, such as whether it can include a bar area, chairs and electricity.

In other actions, St. Pete Beach commissioners granted staff an up to a six-month extension on contract negotiations with United Park Services to operate the city-owned concession stands on Upham Beach and Pass-A-Grille.

Dickman said it may not take up to six months to complete negotiations, but that is the maximum allowed under state law.

During discussion, Commissioners Rick Falkenstein and Terri Finnerty noted Upham Beach residents are unhappy and voiced displeasure with the way their area concession stand is operated. They noted the facility is sometimes closed as early as 4 p.m.