Barbecue video goes viral, draws scrutiny on pinellas county code enforcement 850 gas block

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In less than a week, the video racked up nearly 4.2 million views, escalating what would have been a run-of-the-mill code complaint into an Internet meme symbolizing government overreach for millions. As social media lit up, county officials held a Monday news conference to explain their side.

The latest cause célèbre for antigovernment cranks stemmed from a long-simmering dispute between brothers Dwayne and Chris Matt and their neighbor, Sue Godfirnon. For months, Godfirnon had complained to the county about smoke billowing from the Matts’ barbecue grill and onto her property on Alcola Way.

"This is obviously harassment and people like the one making complaints about these guys are the exact reason laws and ordinances get passed that further restrict our life, liberty and pursuit of happiness," the editor of govtookmyrights.com wrote. "It is obvious that the woman is just trying to make their life miserable with all the different complaints."

The Matts live in the ranch-style home formerly owned by their parents, now deceased. They say Godfirnon, an elementary school teacher with the Pinellas district, has been harassing them for the past few years, mostly about the smoke but also about parking and loud music.

Godfirnon, who didn’t return a call or answer her door Monday, has flooded the county with photos and videos to make her case that she’s being poisoned. Several videos show white plumes of smoke billowing from under a canopy in a back yard obscured by a white privacy fence. In at least one video, the smoke is clearly wafting toward her home. One photo shows a carbon monoxide detector in her home showing a reading of 170 parts per million, a high enough concentration that can cause headaches, fatigue and nausea.

After Godfirnon called last week — roughly her 14th complaint — Graham showed up with a clipboard and, while the camera rolled, read from the county ordinance. It defines an objectionable outdoor odor as one that "is or may be harmful or injurious to human health or welfare, which unreasonably interferes with the comfortable use and enjoyment of life or property, or which creates a nuisance odor."

Graham handled the call by the book and kept his cool, said his boss, Satyal. He said the department handles about 140 calls a year and about 5 percent to 10 percent are for smoke from grills. He attempted to emphasize a point that was lost on Internet commentators: There is no ordinance regulating barbecue grilling.

So, what kind of grill is it? The Matts declined to let a flock of reporters who showed up to their house Monday see it. But a county complaint report shows photos of two barrel-shaped grills, one about the size of a typical grill, the other roughly the size of a 55-gallon drum.

In March, the city of St. Petersburg cited the Matts for a large grill on a trailer emblazoned with a commercial sign parked in their driveway, which is prohibited in a residential area, said Rob Gerdes, the city’s code enforcement operations manager. The brothers moved the grill to settle the matter, Gerdes said.

"All we’re really looking for is to decrease (Godfirnon’s) negative impacts and try to educate the grill owner about things they might be able to do to minimize the impact," said Paul Cozzie, director of parks and conservation resources. "But it blows up in today’s social media."