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Lease renewal with Skydive City pulls Zephyrhills into bitter fight

ZEPHYRHILLS — The city has been roped into the legal battle over Skydive City, with one attorney threatening legal action Monday night after the council extended the skydiving company's lease at Zephyrhills Municipal Airport.

Skydive City won a 20-year extension on its lease on a 3-2 vote, with council members Manny Funes and Tim Urban voting against it. Both said after the meeting they felt uneasy voting on the lease while the fate of the skydiving venture remains tied up in court.

"I'm concerned about the court case they've got going," Funes said. "I don't feel comfortable about that."

Officials from Skydive City and former flight vendor Freefall Express have been embroiled in bitter litigation since February. The lawsuit came shortly after Skydive City canceled its contract with Freefall to provide the skydivers' flights and told the vendor to leave the airport premises — although the suit also involves disputes over property, finances and flights Skydive City provided without the proper licenses.

Freefall attorney Andrew Beatty urged council members to postpone a vote on the lease until after the next court hearing. Freefall wants to continue operating from Skydive City's leased site and has accused Skydive City of possessing a half-million dollars worth of Freefall's aircraft parts, supplies and equipment and 6,000 gallons of fuel, which will be discussed at a hearing scheduled for today.

"We're not seeking leverage (over) Skydive City," Beatty told the council Monday night. "What we are seeking is our property."

Skydive City attorney Jack Hoogewind accused Freefall of squatting in Skydive City's aircraft hangar and trying to "torpedo the extension of this lease."

Trina Sweet, who runs the Zephyrhills Municipal Airport, said the controversy between the two companies is irrelevant to Skydive City's request for a lease extension.

"The city of Zephyrhills has no contractual agreement with Freefall Express. … Skydive City is solely responsible for Freefall Express," Sweet said.

Sweet noted that Zephyrhills police have been called to the airport several times to referee spats between the two companies, but she said those disputes need to be sorted out in civil court. In addition to the arguments over property, Freefall owner Bill Richards alleges Skydive City general manager David "T.K." Hayes flew some skydivers without the proper pilot's licenses in place; and that Skydive City put dividends toward a new facility at the airport without consulting with Richards, who is a 32 percent shareholder.

Although he doesn't get a vote in such city matters, Zephyrhills Mayor Cliff McDuffie said Freefall's argument "was nothing but muddy waters because … it has nothing to do with us."

Council President Lance Smith agreed.

"We're in a lease with them now; we're extending it," Smith said. "And what happens in court is neither here nor there."

City Attorney Joseph Poblick said the council could rescind the lease if the courts find against Skydive City.

"If they violated the law, that would violate the terms of the lease," Poblick told the council.

Afterward, Beatty called the council decision to extend Skycive City's lease "a premature decision."

"They should have investigated the facts," said Beatty, adding that he plans to file suit against the city.

Lease renewal with Skydive City pulls Zephyrhills into bitter fight 10/26/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 26, 2010 8:57pm]
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