Couple accuse local developer of racial discrimination
Article Courtesy of The Ocala Star Banner
By Suevon Lee
Published August 16, 2010
A local real estate developer who has drawn the wrath of dozens of homeowners at the Hardwood Trails subdivision for neglecting basic construction and repair needs is now the target of a racial discrimination lawsuit filed in federal court.
Plaintiffs Roy and Dorothy Smith allege that John Zacco and his JP & Sons Development Company tried to prevent the African-American couple from moving into Hardwood Trails because of their race and took a series of retaliatory actions against the couple for filing grievances with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The 22-page complaint, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in the Middle District of Florida, seeks legal redress under the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and Civil Rights Act of 1866 and calls for compensatory and punitive damages against Zacco and his co-defendants, which include two officers of the Hardwood Trails Property Owners Association and two agents of Noble Brokerage Services.
Although this is the first formal lawsuit to be filed against Zacco in federal court, at least one other couple has filed a discrimination complaint with HUD under the American Disabilities Act after Zacco allegedly refused to permit a generator at their Hardwood Trails home.
Zacco, developer also of Cherrywood Estates, is the subject of a number of state court actions filed by disgruntled homeowners at Hardwood Trails who claim the most basic repairs had not been met on their homes, while promised amenities, such as a heated swimming pool, were never installed in the gated community despite the payment of amenities fees.
The allegations outlined in the Smiths' complaint, meantime, describe a series of actions taken by Zacco to discourage and intimidate the couple from moving into Hardwood Trails, an age 55-plus secluded development in southwest Ocala, as well as to isolate and exclude them as members of the homeowners' association.
Roy Smith, 61, and his wife, Dorothy, 59, had chosen Ocala as a place to retire from their previous residence of Washington, D.C., because they were "instantly drawn to Ocala's gentle rolling landscapes, pleasant climate, and peaceful atmosphere," states the complaint.
"Their dream was not to materialize," it adds.
In February 2004, they signed a contract with JP & Sons for the purchase of one lot and construction of a single-family home in Hardwood Trails. But the complaint alleges that Zacco delayed registering the deed to the couple, waited several months to obtain a building permit, and denied the couple permission for a walk-through of the home to monitor progress, although he allegedly granted similar permission to other incoming residents.
Eight months later, the complaint alleges, Zacco attempted to cancel the Smiths' contract, indicating in a letter to the couple they seemed "unhappy." The complaint alleges that the couple eventually learned the developer had expressed his displeasure to a sales agent upon learning the Smiths were black.
In December 2004, the Smiths filed a complaint against Zacco with HUD for these delays, at which point the developer allegedly attempted to sign on a closing if they agreed to drop the complaint. The couple refused to concede. In fact, they have since filed three additional complaints with HUD, all of which remain pending.
The couple's problems allegedly did not end once they moved into their new home sometime between late 2004 and early 2005. They claim they have never received garbage removal service, were denied cable television service from the only provider authorized by JP & Sons to provide such service, and that JP & Sons recorded a claim of lien against their property, even when it refused to accept checks provided by their mortgage provider.
Dozens of checks they sent to the homeowners' association for membership dues allegedly have not been cashed.
"This intentional exclusion has prevented Mr. and Mrs. Smith from voting in elections that were open to other members and has denied Mr. Smith an opportunity to run for a position on the Board," the complaint states.
The couple also allege they were intentionally locked out of the subdivision when they went away for several days and returned only to find the gates closed and their home inaccessible without a remote opener or access code. The Marion County Sheriff's Office confirmed Friday that they assisted the couple during this episode in late April.
The Smiths were among the subdivision's first residents, according to the complaint and interviews with neighbors. Several Hardwood Trails residents said the Smiths are the only African-Americans in the subdivision, which has 41 occupied lots, and that they largely keep to themselves. Neighbors do not have a hard time, however, imagining the allegations.
"He's not a very pleasant person," Joan LeBel, a former resident, said of Zacco. "I don't have any personal experience, but I know the stories," she added, of the Smiths' experience.
Don Kronen, a current resident of Hardwood Trails who has initiated legal action against Zacco in state court for his alleged neglect of basic home repairs, said that while he doesn't personally know whether his neighbors have been racially discriminated against, he is certain of one thing.
"He has taken our money," he said of Zacco, an unlicensed contractor whose Thoroughbred Homes Inc. company once hired a state-licensed contractor from Boca Raton to pull permits on its behalf.
"The [Hardwood Trails Homeowners'] Association was basically run illegally in every facet you could imagine," Kronen added.
The Smiths did not return calls for comment Friday. Their attorney from a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights law firm declined to comment, offering only that "the lawsuit speaks for itself." A message left for Zacco at the Hardwood Trails' office, meantime, was not returned.
Although residents of Hardwood Trails have attempted to compel the State Attorney's Office to pursue a criminal investigation of Zacco and his actions as developer, so far their requests have fallen on deaf ears, according to Kronen.
Capt. Tom Terrell of the Marion County Sheriff's Office said Friday his agency's fraud unit has presented information to state prosecutors several times.
Said Kronen, "The State Attorney's Office didn't want to touch it."