Firm seeks damages in wake of condo fight

Article Courtesy of The Forum Publishing Group

By Don Crinklaw

Published September 12, 2013


Going to court to argue over a megabucks high-rise project can have unwelcome consequences, John Weaver told a meeting of the board of the Council of Neighborhood Associations last week including getting sued for millions of dollars.
Weaver, president of the Central Beach Alliance, was referring to the wrangle provoked by the 11-story condominium that developer Michael Bedzow plans to build on an acre-and-a-half of ground located at 321 N. Birch Road.
The CBA had voted overwhelmingly against the enterprise, only to have the Planning and Zoning Board and the Fort Lauderdale City Commission give the project, known as Grand Birch, a go-ahead anyway.
That's when a second group, calling itself Residents for Responsible Growth, hired attorney Keith Poliakoff to ask a court to issue an injunction on the project. Residents for Responsible Growth argued the project was too tall, too deep and too wide, and lacked "neighborhood compatibility."
After that Grand Birch became, in the words of the project's attorney Donald Hall, "a briar patch."
Weaver and the CBA were initially part of the Residents for Responsible Growth suit but dropped out, though Weaver's name still turns up on documents. The first document is a motion filed by Hall's firm Gunster, Yoakley and Stewart, PA seeking $7,063 in legal fees. The second is a letter, dated July 3, stating that once the motion is granted Grand Birch "will file suit for malicious prosecution."
Since these suits can run "to millions of dollars," the letter said, "Grand Birch will seek treble that amount in punitive damages."
Some residents with knowledge of Grand Birch's actions see any potential suit as a strategy to silence critics by threatening them with legal costs.
Poliakoff said that the matter so far is "only threatening correspondences." He doubted the developer would take it to the next level and actually file the lawsuit. They must be aware, he said, of Florida Statute 720.304, aimed "at protecting against lawsuits arising out of a homeowner's appearance and presentation before a government entity on matters related to the homeowner's association."
Shannon Harmeling, council board member from Lake Ridge, said the key is "neighborhood compatibility. There's no concrete answer to what that is."
But Hall argues that the CBA and Residents for Responsible Growth "define 'compatibility' as 'agreeing with us.'"
He said Gunster plans to seek the punitive damages after the Residents for Responsible Growth lawsuit and the motion are settled.
"Upon prevailing we will file suit. We haven't filed anything yet we're simply putting them on notice of our opinion that their suit is frivolous, and if we prevail this is something we may very well do. Because if we prevail it's our view of the law that we're entitled to ask for relief," Hall said.
"You should consider all consequences before you take an action."
And is it an attempt to intimidate?

"Seemed to work, didn't it?" Hall said.