Bradenton Beach presses on in lawsuit defense

Bradenton Beach commissioners won’t be deterred. They are pressing on against a lawsuit filed in June 2012 to halt development on the beach across from city hall.

The suit targets a joint development agreement between the city and Ed Chiles’ BeachHouse Restaurant corporation, ELRA Inc., but neither Chiles nor ELRA are named in the suit.

It was filed by three citizens to stop a proposed parking lot on the beachfront at the BeachHouse Restaurant, 200 Gulf Drive N.

The project included the construction of a dune, which has been completed, and the creation of about a dozen parking spaces for the restaurant, as well as five spaces for the city. The city owns an easement on the beach at the south end of the property owned by Chiles.

The parking lot project has yet to begin, but the restaurant has used the area for parking for several years.

The suit challenges the city’s decision to disregard a March 2012 planning and zoning board vote to recommend the commission deny that agreement. Among the reasons cited by P&Z were that it violates the city charter and land development codes.

The city entered the agreement in April 2012, questioning during discussion the qualifications of P&Z members to make the recommendation. The contentious meeting led to the resignation of three P&Z members — two of them parties to the lawsuit — Jo Ann Meilner and Bill Shearon. Shearon is both a mayoral candidate in the Nov. 5 election and former city commissioner. His partner and campaign treasurer, Tjet Martin, is the third party in the suit.

Little movement on the suit has occurred, but city attorney Ricinda Perry said Oct. 17 that legal fees for the city have reached $20,000. If it goes to court, Perry estimated the city’s costs will more than double.

The plaintiffs in the case, represented by former city attorney Ralf Brookes of Cape Coral, offered the city a deal to end the matter — if the city agrees to binding arbitration — but commissioners previously rejected that proposal. They did so again at the Oct. 17 city meeting.

Perry said there are no hearings scheduled, and that she has been attempting to force mediation.

Perry sought direction on whether commissioners wanted her to pursue litigation or binding arbitration, which she said is still an option to reduce costs.

Mayor John Shaughnessy said costs were a concern. He wanted to revisit the arbitration offer because it would be “quicker and less expensive.”

Commissioner Ric Gatehouse said no to arbitration.

“It’s binding and we have no further legal recourse,” he said.

Perry said typically an arbitrator “relies on their own experience. That’s where the concern lies with me. You’re stuck with (his or her) opinion with no ability of appeal if the decision is based on misunderstanding of the law.”

Gatehouse said he preferred to take the case in front of a judge.

“We have to defend our right to make decisions up here based on our understanding of codes and ordinances,” he said. “We’ve offered mediation. The ball is in their court. I’m content to wait rather than enter into arbitration where we have no recourse.”

Commissioner Gay Breuler said that’s why the commission rejected arbitration when it was first offered.

“We knew this was going to cost money, but we know we are correct and it’s the right thing to do,” she said.

Commissioner Jan Vosburgh also rejected arbitration and Vice Mayor Ed Straight said his experience with arbitration was not good.

Commissioners did not need to take official action since they had previously provided a consensus to reject the arbitration offer.

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