Jensen apartment complex must be razed

By Sarah Eisenhauer, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Article Courtesy of Palm Beach Post

JENSEN BEACH -- Thomas Thomson gambled when he built a $3 million cluster of luxury apartment buildings about four years ago, ignoring a lawsuit filed by nearby homeowners alleging the buildings violated Martin County's growth rules.

The Florida Supreme Court has proven just how risky that gamble was.

The state's highest court sided with a controversial ruling requiring five apartment buildings in the Villas of Pinecrest Lakes to be demolished, according to an order lawyers received Thursday.

By agreeing not to hear the developer's appeal, the court upheld the 4th District Court of Appeal's decision that the buildings are illegal, primarily because they were built too close to neighboring single-family homes in the Pinecrest Lakes development.

"I'm elated," said Karen Shidel, the only Pinecrest Lakes resident who kept the lawsuit alive after the homeowners association settled two years ago. "I'm glad I stuck with it."

The Supreme Court decision also had growth-management activists celebrating a victory they say could have repercussions for residents throughout the state. Local governments should not dismiss neighbors who show up at meetings and argue a development could have negative effects on their neighborhood, they said.

Thomson argued throughout the seven-year legal fight that his buildings should be allowed to stay because he had permission from the county commission to build.

"This shows residents do have a dog in the fight. The overarching sense I get from this is that growth management issues get so political," said attorney Richard Grosso of the Environmental Land Use and Law Center, who represented Shidel. "The right thing so frequently doesn't get done. It takes a court of law to come in and do justice."

In Shidel's first victory in the case, Treasure Coast Circuit Judge Larry Schack ruled in 1999 that the buildings violate Martin County's growth-management plan and must come down. He said the apartments weren't compatible with the single-family homes and violated a county policy that calls for "tiering," or gradually increasing densities between neighborhoods. 

The Martin County Commission approved the apartments by a 3-2 vote in 1995, prompting a lawsuit from the homeowners association less than a month later. Several residents argued throughout the approval process that the plans didn't comply with the county's rules for growth.

Schack put the demolition on hold until the developer ran out of appeals. The apartments must be razed within 45 days of the final court ruling, he ruled.

Grosso said he expects the state Supreme Court's decision is the final ruling. In order for Thomson to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, he must show a federal issue is in question. 

"I cannot imagine any legal theory that would show a federal issue," he said. "These are purely state issues. This court case is legally done."

Officials in Thomson's Wisconsin office referred phone calls to his lawyers in Tallahassee and Stuart but none returned calls for comment. 

Builders associations, developers and local governments throughout the state have followed the case closely. Builders worry it will encourage frivolous challenges and governments fear it will remove some of their ability to interpret their own development rules.

The Florida Home Builders Association dedicated part of its Web site to the case, stating that it "strips local governments of their zoning decisions, and halts development projects, possibly for years, in cases involving citizen challenges until all the legal remedies are exhausted."

The appellate judges dismissed Thomson's argument that his loss of $3 million from tearing down the buildings is much greater than the nearby homeowners' loss in property value from allowing them to remain standing.

The judges countered that the alleged inequity would have been avoided if the developer had simply waited for all the legal challenges to finish before constructing the apartments.

The Villas' property manager also could not be reached for comment Thursday on how many residents live there. In September, 24 families lived in the buildings ordered to be torn down. A few have since moved out.

Jessie Herrick, a South Fork High School teacher, said she is not happy about having to move.

"Wow, it stinks," she said. "It kind of puts my summer into a pitfall."

Neighbors Harry and Jeanne Owings, who moved into their apartment a year ago, said they were not surprised by the Supreme Court's decision not to take the case, but they are "very unhappy" about it.

"There isn't anywhere around with the square footage of these apartments with an attached garage," Jeanne Owings said.

But after 28 years of living in Jensen Beach, the Owings said they moved into Pinecrest Villas knowing the litigation over the buildings remained unresolved.

"It was not a secret," Harry Owings said of the lawsuit. "We moved in knowing about the lawsuit."

"We kept hoping for a miracle," Jeanne Owings added. "It's been like sitting on a cliff, not knowing if you're going to fall."

The Villas model office was closed late Thursday when Linda Houston arrived, hoping to rent an apartment in the complex for her daughter.

"There are so few apartments out here and these are the nicest ones I know in the area," she said.

Shidel said she believes the renters are also "innocent victims." But after the long legal battle, she hopes her house will soon be out from under the shadow of the two-story apartment building.

"That will be vindication," Shidel said.