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Business Observer Friday, Mar. 14, 2014 4 years ago

Back to the boutique

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James Humphrey rejoins the firm he founded in 1982 to focus on government representation.
by: Jean Gruss Contributing Writer

If you've ever endured through a city council or county commission meeting, you might wonder why anyone would want to be a municipal-government counsel and sit through such tedium.

James Humphrey says his friends in the law business have asked him that question many times. “I've always enjoyed government practice,” Humphrey chuckles. “I also liked the idea of being counsel for a public body.”

In fact, Humphrey liked it so much he became the mayor of Fort Myers from 2000 to 2009, steering the city during the boom years by shepherding downtown development and annexing suburbs east of Interstate 75.

So it was big news in Fort Myers recently when Humphrey announced he would rejoin the partners of Knott Ebelini Hart, a law firm he founded in 1982. The firm is known for its municipal representation, real estate and business law.

Currently, Humphrey is counsel to the elected Lee Memorial Health System Board of Directors and the Industrial Development Authority of Lee and Charlotte counties. “When you represent government, you really are involved in what's going on in the community,” Humphrey says.

Humphrey moved to Fort Myers in 1970 after serving in the U.S. Army's Judge Advocate General Corps in Germany. Originally from rural Georgia, Humphrey settled on Fort Myers with the idea that the area was poised for growth. “I knew I wanted to come to Florida,” he says.

In 1973, Humphrey became the first full-time county attorney for the Lee County Board of County Commissioners. At the time, Lee County was starting to grow significantly and Humphrey cut his teeth on zoning and development challenges. “This was the beginning of the comprehensive land-use plan,” he says.

Humphrey played an integral part in managing growth in Lee County. “Did we want the west coast to be like the east coast?” he says. “I had the opportunity at a very critical time ... to help shape the growth.”

Even after he went into private practice in 1977, Humphrey was deeply involved in steering land development. He formed a boutique firm specializing in this field with law partners Beverly Grady and Kenneth Jones, now partners at the Roetzel firm in Fort Myers. Grady and Jones were assistant county attorneys before they teamed up with Humphrey.

For example, he helped Bonita Bay Group with its signature Bonita Bay development, the 2,400-acre community that General Nutrition Corp. Founder David Shakarian carved out of the 4,000 acres he acquired in Bonita Springs in the late 1970s.

Subsequently, George Knott, Mark Ebelini and Thomas Hart joined the firm. Humphrey became mayor in 2000 and needed the help of a larger firm to help him with his clients while he was in public service, so he joined the statewide firm of Fowler White Boggs.

Now back with Knott, Humphrey says he'll continue to focus on government representation. It's not likely he'll return to politics, but he continues to hold strong views about the future of Fort Myers. “Their biggest challenge continues to be financial,” Humphrey says, citing the unfunded pension liabilities for city employees.

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