The Stench Goes On

by Bernard McCormick Wednesday, May 18, 2011 No Comment(s)

Last week the papers reported the decade-long fight between the historic Stranahan House and the developer wanting to build a high-rise condo almost on top of it appears to be over – with the developer winning. Appeals that began with a terrible legal decision years ago seem to be exhausted.

This marathon case takes on poignancy, at least in this space, because we recently celebrated Fort Lauderdale’s centennial with a special section that included the Stranahan House – the oldest building in the city. It was originally the trading post where the Seminoles came to do business with the newly arrived settlers, the latter coming in increasing numbers as the railroad reached the New River and crossed south toward Miami.

Veteran litigators will recall the location was formerly a Hyde Park Market, which was sold to the developer as part of a package. A market on that site was not a good idea, but when it was built the preservation of a unique part of the city’s history was not as appreciated as it became once redevelopment began closing in on the Stranahan House.

The city decided this important property (Stranahan House) deserved to be part of a park. Actually, a perfect location, more so every time a new high rise rose nearby. The Riverside Hotel built an expansion, right on top of it. Nature begged for some breathing space. The voters passed a bond issue, which, coupled with a private gift from an anonymous donor, provided enough money to give the developer about four times what it had paid a few years before. That money has been upped over the years. The developer, The Related Group, said no and an eminent domain suit followed. And this is where things got smelly.

A public park is a legitimate use for an eminent domain condemnation. Unlike some other cases where eminent domain has been used to knock stuff down to make way for private development, this was clearly a public benefit. The case was set for trial, before the highly respected Judge J. Leonard Fleet. In an unusual development, the judge was even quoted in the paper saying how much he looked forward to trying this interesting case. Then, in an even more unusual move, he took himself off the case, citing an inappropriate event. He did not want to say what that was, but was forced to in court and it turned out he thought he had been offered a bribe.

The circumstances would make that hard to prove, but the mere fact that a seasoned and notably independent jurist interpreted it as such is telling.

Then, to pile the unusual on the unusual, the case wound up with a judge who had a record of ruling against cities in various cases. He had also been reversed in other matters and reprimanded by the Florida Supreme Court. One of the best Broward judges to hear such a case was replaced by the last man you would want in that position.

What happened next was almost predictable. There was no trial. The judge issued a summary judgment in favor of the developer. That, of course, got a lot of publicity, including in Gold Coast magazine, but there was never the outrage that such an event seemed to warrant, especially in view of the circumstances in which the original judge removed himself.

Instead, the case dragged on and on and on. The developer took the position that the legal delay had cost it millions – somewhat dubious, in light of the real estate recession that hit at about the time the building would have come on line. Indeed, the same developer got slaughtered in other buildings. It could be argued that the delay saved the developer millions. And you wonder why, in this economy, the developer, with so many problems, would not jump at an offer to take far more than it paid years ago.

At one point the city attempted a land swap, taking the potential park site in exchange for city land on the beach. The city commission turned that deal down, 3-2. Two of our most neighborhood-friendly commissioners, Cindi Hutchinson and Christine Teel, were the key votes against the deal. It still strikes us as odd that they voted that way.

Much of this long fight has been odd. It is not getting any odder. The smell has only gotten worse.

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