TREASURE ISLAND — Tony Amico, owner of Caddy's beachfront restaurant and bar, is suing the state of Florida, a sitting city commissioner and a former commissioner for potentially millions of dollars.
At issue is Amico's claim to ownership of the beach west of Caddy's to the Gulf of Mexico.
"The case is relatively straightforward," said Amico's attorney Ethan Loeb. "The state has reneged on a deal, and we are seeking damages."
The suit was filed against the Florida Board of Trustees for the Internal Improvement Trust Fund, as well as against Commissioner Alan Bildz and former Commissioner and resident Ed Gayton for their actions that Amico says has put his ownership into question. The trust is an agency that holds the ownership of state lands.
Neither Loeb nor Amico are saying just how much money they hope to win, but they say it is definitely in the "high seven figures" — an amount Amico said he lost this month when a potential buyer backed out of an agreement to purchase the Caddy's property.
The sale fell through, Amico said, because of a letter from the state Department of Environmental Protection declaring that a 2009 land ownership agreement between Amico and the state Board of Trustees does not give Amico ownership of as much of the beach as he claims.
Amico declined to reveal his buyer, but said the company operates "many successful bars" throughout Florida and the country.
"They didn't want to change a thing, the name, the menu or the management," Amico said Monday. "The state has now cost me two sales."
According to Al Dougherty, deputy secretary of Land and Recreation with the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Caddy's property does not extend to the waterline and Amico has no right to keep people from using the beach west of Caddy's deeded property line.
"Please remove any signs that are prohibiting or regulating the public's use of state-owned land," Dougherty wrote in his June 1 letter to Amico.
Amico counters that additional lots (including water lots) he subsequently purchased are also covered by the 2009 agreement.
In 2005, Pinellas County also offered to buy the property for $11.4 million. That deal fell apart when another state official said the state owned the beachfront.
Amico then sued the state and in 2009 he and the state reached an agreement, signed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist and his cabinet, granting Amico and his companies ownership of the disputed property.
Amico's latest lawsuit was filed June 13 on behalf of Gulf Sands Properties, LLC and T.I. Holdings, Inc., companies he controls and that own the Caddy's property.
The complaint says that Gayton, by continually claiming that Amico does not own the beach behind Caddy's, played a significant role in the state issuing the June letter and the subsequent failure of the restaurant's sale.
Over the past year, Gayton appeared a number of times before the City Commission insisting that Amico does not own the beach, the suit says. When he failed to get the commission to force the issue with the state, he then pressed his argument with the state, according to the suit.
Amico's suit claims Gayton has made "false statements" and encouraged third parties to "engage in improper conduct" that would harm Amico's business.
Gayton later contacted the state DEP, the suit says, asking for the state to take action. Amico is suing him for interfering with the sale through a "malicious and conscious course of conduct."
Bildz is being sued for an alleged slanderous and defamatory statement he made in a local news report: "I know he's (Amico) threatened lawsuits, but a guy like that threatens a lot of things," is the statement Bildz is alleged to have made.
Gayton could not be reached for comment. Bildz said he was advised by the city's attorney not to speak about the lawsuit.
The state agreement and related documents are included in Amico's lawsuit as primary proof of his ownership of the beach all the way to the waterline. A quit claim deed and a disclaimer to Amico that appears to give up the state's rights to any "accreted property" is also included in the filing.
The disclaimer also allows Caddy's to serve food and alcoholic beverages on the beach.
A special warranty deed from the state gives Amico the right to sell the beach property and includes a pledge by the state to "defend" the deed against any "lawful" claims.
Amico says the documents mean he owns any additional beach sand above the water line that resulted from either natural growth or beach renourishment.
A conservation easement specifies that "no right of access by the general public to any portion of the property" was included in Amico's agreement with the state.
Loeb, who negotiated that agreement with the state, said Tuesday the state is "now trying to renege on that deal."