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Business Observer Friday, Jun. 4, 2004 17 years ago

Pillage or Progress?

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The ongoing feud between the Bradenton Beach City Commission and local developers has reached a newfound shrillness. At stake in this battle, between the Hatfields and McCoys, is the future of development on the island.

Pillage or Progress?

The ongoing feud between the Bradenton Beach City Commission and local developers has reached a newfound shrillness. At stake in this battle, between the Hatfields and McCoys, is the future of development on the island.

By Sean Roth

Real Estate Editor

Small town politics tends to invite petty squabbles, and Bradenton Beach is no exception. But the relationship between city commissioners and developers is said to be at a newfound low, with verbal and legal barbs flying back and forth. At issue is the form of future development on the island, and so far, neither side appears ready to budge.

In the two previous elections, commissioners who promised more controlled growth, were voted onto the board. With what they see as a voter mandate, the city commission has gone about making it more difficult to develop on the island. Developers say commissioners, namely Anna O'Brien and Lisa Marie Phillips, have exceeded their legal authority and moved from merely legislating into harassment - a charge those commissioners heartily dispute.

Even so, the heated debate has had consequences. City building officials and attorneys have been fired or resigned over the conflict, leaving the city to rely on assistance from its fellow island municipalities. The battle over development is now in the hands of courts with at least three civil suits pending.

All involved concede that Bradenton Beach is a city in transition. The small waterfront community is getting greater attention from developers because of the relatively low price of waterfront property in comparison to the surrounding islands and the continued demand. Because of density and height restrictions, developers have created plans that tend to maximize both attributes. This is a problem that has been developing over a long period of time.

The city put its desire for controlled growth to the forefront of legislative attention just after the last November election. Three new controlled-growth commissioners: John Shaughnessy, Phillips and Peter Barreda joined O'Brien, a controlled-growth advocate who was elected in 2001.

At the first official meeting of the new city commission, it terminated its contracts with the 18-year city attorney Alan Prather and planner Bill Brisson and put all department heads on 90 days probation pending job performance reviews. Commissioners at that meeting also officially terminated the terms of city planning and zoning board members Susan Kehne and Pete Milazzo, because they were not city residents. Their message was clearly aimed at the top development officials; although the firings were ostensibly for lack of confidence.

"Mr. Prather's firm represented other cities and several developers working on the island," O'Brien says. "So he had to recuse himself on a number of occasions. It was a little bit too incestuous a relationship."

The commissioners hired a former Anna Maria Commission attorney Chuck Webb as interim city attorney.

Just prior to the election, the city's building official C. Bob Welch filed a Florida State Ethics Law complaint against the commission for discussions held prior to a city commission meeting. In a later meeting that month, the city commission voted 4-1 to ask all department heads, including Welch, to provide copies of their computer hard drives. And the commissioners formally requested copies of all records of the former city attorney.

Welch, writing to the mayor and commissioners on Dec. 10, says: "The recent retaliation against me since the ethical and licensing complaints became public knowledge has had a very negative impact on my ability to function in this office. The innuendo of wrongdoing as evidenced by the recent demand for computer records and the placement of probation upon me for no reason has caused great distress amongst my family and friends."

On Dec. 11, Welch resigned effective Jan. 2, 2004. His resignation followed a letter from Commissioner Phillips dressing him down for "leveling absurd charges against" Ernest Clay, a member of the planning and zoning committee, in two separate public meetings. In one of the meetings, Welch had made reference to Clay contention he was a licensed Florida architect, which he was not. Phillips' letter had also asked that a written reprimand be placed in Welch's employment file.

In his resignation, Welch wrote to Mayor John Chappie:

"Recent actions by various commissioners are obviously in retaliation against me. A recent letter from Ms. Phillips to the various members of the commission, which contained significant and material inaccuracies about me, is only the tip of the iceberg. Now, Vice Mayor O'Brien is making the witch hunt official by demanding my presence at the Dec. 18 meeting of the commission.

"The agenda for the Dec. 18 meeting makes it clear that retribution, not good government, is the primary goal. Matters are to be reviewed on that day that cannot even legally be heard by the commission. Such considerations seem to be of no moment to those involved.

"These actions and the obvious goal of those in charge to discredit me render my continued employment with the city impossible."

Welch also retained attorney David Wilcox to represent him in further discussions with the commission.

On Feb. 9, Dawn Betts, the city's code enforcement officer, resigned from her position citing "lack of management support, company structure and low morale."

Holmes Beach has allowed Bradenton Beach to use several members of its staff as interim building officials.

Toward the end of April, the city commission passed a one-year renewal extending a moratorium on amendments to the zoning atlas and comprehensive plan, which has been in place for about two years.

In March, the lawsuits - all authored by Wilcox - started flying. Betts, the former code enforcement officer, sued Vice Mayor O'Brien, Phillips and Bradenton Beach Code Enforcement Board Chairman Ken Lohn. In two separate suits, Welch and developer David Teitelbaum sued O'Brien.

Last month, Bradenton Circuit Court Judge Marc Gilner dismissed without prejudice the suit by Betts against O'Brien and Phillips. In that suit, Betts claimed she was defamed by the two city officials at a commission meeting.

Teitelbaum is one of the central developers in the new conflict over redevelopment on the island. Last year, GCBR ran a feature on the former New York developer after he purchased a longstanding Anna Maria Island resort, the Tortuga Inn, and announced plans for construction of an additional 23-unit, $5 million hotel building. At the time, Teitelbaum had just waded through a costly battle with the commission over approval of Old Bridge Village, a four-building office/condominium complex at 300 Bay Drive S. He recently closed on the 35-unit rental development, The Tradewinds Resort, at 1603 Gulf Drive N.

He was candid about the fact that the city commission was making approval of special exceptions and variances so difficult for him that he had chosen to make approvals of his next two developments approval proof by right.

"I did The Tradewinds and Tortuga Inn without requiring a single exception or variance because I got such heartburn from Old Bridge Village," he says. "Even after I got approval for (Old Bridge Village) as a planned development, Anna O'Brien made herself such an enemy of the project."

Now, Teitelbaum is suing commissioner O'Brien, charging she interfered with his ability to develop and sell Old Bridge Village.

The suit says "O'Brien without permission or invitation, appears on or about the Old Bridge Village site on almost a daily basis, whereupon she takes photographs, uses abusive and foul language to workers and customers, and has called the city police again and again making unfounded complaints to them." The suit seeks compensatory damages in the million-dollar range and a permanent injunction.

"One of the most egregious issues is when she cost me a potential partner on the next phase of the Tortuga," Teitelbaum says. "He was here with his team investigating the site, when Anna (O'Brien) drove by shouting obscenities at him. She kept telling him to move his limousine, which was legally parked in front of my office. She did it two days in a row. Eventually, my potential partner started investigating her other activities and the entire commission. He decided not to do any investing on Bradenton Beach. That deal was worth millions of dollars to me."

O'Brien presents a far different incident. "I certainly did not shout obscenities at anyone," she says. "I did ask the limo driver to move the limousine, though, because it was blocking the street."

Both the Betts and an earlier suit by Teitelbaum reference a Feb. 20 commission meeting, where O'Brien said: "she (Betts) has been daily on the porch with Mr. Teitlebaum - very intimately - while simultaneously serving code infraction notices to people across the street ... as long as she's in the city's employ she needs to watch what the hell she's doing in public."

"I wasn't saying they were romantically involved," O'Brien says. "I was just inferring that their action was playful and unprofessional ... that it was too flirtatious, that citizens could perceive an unfair sense of intimacy between the two of them. It was just a conflict of interest for her to be doing it during business hours."

Further, O'Brien says she had hoped to make her remarks more privately. "I never would have said a word had I realized that the press would have been there," she says. "I would have just said, 'Go on and have a nice life.' I thought by doing it quickly there, no one would notice, and we (the commission) could get together to let her have three days off (before her resignation became official.) That may have been very naive of me."

O'Brien admits that the relationship between her and Teitelbaum has soured of late.

"I understand it's in the best interest of developers to market themselves," O'Brien says. "I understand it pays for them to make us look bad. I can't think of any derogatory comments I have made to any of the developers. But these guys like Teitelbaum have threatened me. This drives me crazy. This didn't become personal until they made it personal. The very first time I brought it up to the (former owners prior to Teitelbaum) of Old Bridge Village, 'Please, discuss with us the rezone.' He said, 'Screw You;' and it was not even that nice."

Wilcox sees O'Brien's Teitelbaum/Betts statements and the confrontational relationship between developers and the commission as a systemic problem.

"I find it beyond the pale some of the things they have said and some of the actions of the commission," Wilcox says. "Their mandate for controlled growth may or may not be true ... but I am tired of this stuff, and I'm not going to take this any more. These are not very nice people. I think the stuff that Anna O'Brien said about Dawn Betts and David Teitelbaum was rude, offensive and just plain not true. It is just that type of flippant remarks that I have a problem with. These people need to follow the law. Some of them believe they are above the law and can be rude and offensive to people."

Brent Whitehead, president of Cortez-based Whitehead Construction Inc., believes that the problem is not the commissioners' ideology. He thinks the conflict stems from the commission's inappropriate approach to controlling growth.

"I think they really do sincerely love their community, and they are concerned about the right things," Whitehead says. "Their problem is they just go after the obvious problems of the developers. It's a short-term solution. I think the problem is too much development too soon. But you don't shoot the developers. (The commission's) solution is to stop everything, instead of looking at what they can do to promote the type of development they want. They need to encourage things like long-term tourism to help preserve the city during the summer months. Right now, motel and hotel facilities are not even allowed to build kitchens in the units. It's that kind of thing."

But Whitehead also admitted that he has experienced harassment on the job site from city commissioners. "I have had cases of verbal abuse to people on job sites," he says. "We have had people constantly calling the police over to our job sites. People that have been looking for a car that might not be parked exactly right. There is obviously lesser respect in public meetings with the planning board or the commission whenever we present a new project. This discourages me from working there."

Reed Mapes, owner of the development/construction firm of Reed W. Mapes Inc., most recently the developer of the Sandcastle Beach Resort in the city, agrees with Whitehead. "I think they have bitten off a lot more than they could chew right up front," Mapes says. "What they are doing are knee-jerk reactions. It was an embarrassment what they did to Bob Welch. He was one of the best building officials I have ever dealt with. They said he was favoring developers, which was not the case. I don't think they understand the regulations. They choose simplistic solutions such as extending the moratorium or denying everything that comes to the commission."

The general consensus among commission critics is that the commission chose to focus on other areas to restrict development besides making changes to the city's comprehensive plan, which would have quantified the land restrictions. In many developers' opinion, changes to the comp plan would allow developers to have a better idea of what type of development and what locations are permissible.

"I would agree with that," Wilcox says. "There is nothing wrong with going back and changing the comprehensive plan. But instead they extended the moratorium. They keep saying they are going to revamp the comp plan, but they have sat on their hands doing virtually zero. These commissioners have chosen to drive away potential customers and investors and generally made life miserable for developers. They have chosen to be a perpetual thorn in the side of legitimate business. We are still investigating more incidents. A lot of this is personality driven."

O'Brien and Phillips say the threats and harassment are only coming one way - not from them but toward them.

"They threatened or attacked me from the very first day," O'Brien says. "What have we really done to these developers? Not allowed their special exemptions."

Asked about problems with the comp plan, O'Brien disputes there are major problems. "The only thing that was wrong is that the city has not been diligent in making sure everyone is in total compliance with the plan. It plainly states that grouping duplex or single-family lots together and putting up huge multifamily housing should be discouraged. It identifies this as a problem. We are just trying to govern here. We haven't taken away anyone's rights. I think it's much ado about nothing."

Commissioner Phillips departs from her fellow commissioner by agreeing that the comprehensive plan needs more changes. She says the precedents set by a number of variances and special exemptions passed in the past have made controlling new development especially difficult. However, she says that many of the more recent problems have been designed and calculated positions by the developers.

"I feel that the neighborhoods must not be sacrificed to the greed of a few people," she says. "I'm just trying to make this a better place for me and my children. It's very hard to face the onslaught. I have no deep pockets. People are quitting voluntary boards right because they say they can't afford to be sued. If any of the developers were to say, 'We would like to be good neighbors,' we would sit down with them. But it is hard to feel benevolent about them; I just think they would go to any lengths to win. They are always talking about property rights, but why would they buy something if they know (a certain development) is not allowed. They will just come in and try to develop through force. Way of life just does not seem to be a valid concern for developers. Why else is Reed Mapes trying to build on an environmentally-protected zone?"

Is there a solution?

"I wish they would just leave us alone and pillage another community," Phillips says. "We have a volunteer citizen committee reviewing the comprehensive plan ... to shore up the ordinances."

Phillips may wind up getting her wish; Whitehead and Mapes have both expressed plans to move on to other areas of the Gulf Coast.

"I'm going to just go find another place to work," Whitehead says. "I don't live there ... this gives these people more rights to this community than I do."

Wilcox is considering further litigation and he's encouraging developers and concerned citizens to support opposition candidates in the next election. "This is not rocket science," Wilcox says. "This is a small city with legitimate issues with growth in the future. They have every right to handle development, but they have to do it legally ... not like some sort of totalitarian regime. You can't just take people's property rights away."

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