Judge dismisses developers' $225 million lawsuit against Aventura residents, report says

Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald

By Nicolas Nehamas   

Published December 12, 2015


A messy legal fight over a high-rise condo going up on a vacant island in Aventura got a little bit clearer last week when a judge dismissed a $225 million lawsuit filed by developers against nearby homeowners who oppose the project.

Developers Gary Cohen and BH3 sued more than 20 residents in February, saying they were “doing everything in their power, legal or not” to stop the eight-acre project, called Privé at Island Estates, “either out of avarice for financial gain or selfishness.” The developers said the homeowners had signed a contract agreeing to the project, and asked for $225 million in damages.

But Miami-Dade Judge Jerald Bagley threw out those claims Friday after a motion by the defendants to dismiss the case. The judge found that the homeowners, who live on a neighboring island, had never signed the agreement. Many of them have complained about increased traffic and a sidewalk being built on what they say is their property.

Bagley also suggested that the developers had filed the suit to intimidate the homeowners, referencing a Florida law that prevents “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” according to a court transcript.

“They sued for $225 million in my view to get some headlines going,” said Susan Raffanello, an attorney for the defendants. “Cohen was attempting to punish the homeowners for standing up for their property rights.”

Daniel Lebensohn, one of the developers, said his group may appeal.

“I completely reject what the judge found,” Lebensohn said. “It’s an underhanded attempt [by the homeowners] to derail a legitimate business operation in South Florida. . . . Their counsel is no better than your average ambulance chaser, making lots of noise but lacking substance to back it up.”

The developers have already begun construction on the project, which will include two 16-story towers and 160 units. One of the towers now stands at four stories, Lebensohn said, adding that sales have been strong.

The dispute between developers and homeowners has caused serious bad blood in Aventura.

The recently dismissed suit is one of at least six filed in local, state and federal courts by both sides over the Privé project. Several are still ongoing, including a suit with 2,000 residents of nearby Williams Island. Developers dropped a $200 million claim against the city of Aventura in May after they were granted a building permit. They also agreed to pay any legal costs for the city stemming from the project.

In February, the drama spilled from the courts into the streets when two residents were arrested after allegedly driving their cars onto a freshly poured sidewalk the developers had built in front of their home. The couple said the sidewalk was on their land. Prosecutors declined to charge them.