Harmony Ranch sues Martin County


From Ginny Sherlock, renowned local attorney, civic activist, and former Associated Press editor: A lawsuit has been filed against Martin County seeking an unspecified amount of money for “inverse condemnation” of property owned by the DiVosta family’s Hobe Sound Ranch, Ltd., based on the County Commission’s rejection of applications to move the urban boundary and increase density for the Harmony Ranch project.

The lawsuit is the second new suit filed by Lake Point attorney Ethan Loeb against Martin County in the last  few weeks.  Last month, he filed a suit on behalf of Justin Industries, a recycling waste hauler, claiming retired Utilities Director John Polley and resigned Solid Waste Manager Patrick Yancey allowed or participated in improper activities at the Martin County landfill.

The $15-$20 million that County Commissioners (except Sarah Heard) agreed to pay Lake Point to settle the lawsuit filed by the western Martin County rockpit in 2013 has encouraged Attorney Loeb to file new suits that will almost surely be presented for multi-million-dollar settlements  like the Lake Point giveaway.

Perhaps Loeb’s law firm — which also represented County Commission candidate Stacey Hetherington during the Lake Point litigation against Maggy Hurchalla — will also ask for an apology letter to be drafted by Commissioner Doug Smith to accompany taxpayer dollars handed over to the plaintiffs.

The latest suit argues that the Harmony  project is “in all material respects . . . identical” to the Pineland Prairie project, which received BCC approval for Comprehensive Plan changes to allow development of an urban center, a new town or village, the same day the Harmony application was rejected.

Hobe Sound Ranch alleges that certain unnamed commissioners said “behind closed doors” that they wanted to vote for the Harmony project but could not do so in a public meeting for fear of causing residents of Jupiter Island to vote for environmentally friendly candidates in the 2018 election (apparently referring to Sarah Heard and Joe Banfi).

Attorney Loeb explains that Jupiter Island residents supported the Pineland Prairie project in Palm City but do not support the Harmony project because, “according to the Town’s manager, Jupiter Island did not want new people in close proximity who may use the Jupiter Island beaches.”

It is hard to see a solid legal basis for the lawsuit; however, the same evaluation applied to the Lake Point litigation against Martin County and South Florida Water Management District which produced super generous settlement agreements as well as an abject “apology” from Commissioners Smith, Jenkins, and Ciampi for “harsh words” Commissioners Heard, Fielding and Anne Scott used to describe the rockpit (owned in part by George Lindemann, Jr., who served time in federal prison for trying to collect insurance proceeds by paying an equine hit man to electrocute his show horse Charisma).

A copy of the Harmony complaint is attached.  The County has hired the Tallahassee law firm of Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney as outside counsel to defend the lawsuit.

The BCC on Tuesday heard a presentation from the Harmony Ranch developer on the proposed Community Development District that Harmony has petitioned the state to approve.  A CDD is special-purpose district established to install, finance and manage infrastructure, like roads and stormwater management systems, for a large area of property.  A CDD does not have zoning/land use/police powers, although it would be governed by a five-member Board of Supervisors.   The BCC took no position on the CDD petition, which will now go to the state for approval.

The Harmony Ranch lawsuit will run concurrently with the CDD petition process.  The County Commission will most probably be asked to come up with another big bundle of tax dollars to settle the litigation in a manner similar to the Lake Point payoff.

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