DUNEDIN — A developer's lawsuit against the city spilled into a commission meeting Thursday night, leading the city's attorney to suggest a potential legal backlash after business leaders made a public show of support for the developers.
The federal suit, filed last year by developers of the Beso Del Sol Resort on Bayshore Boulevard, contends that Dunedin officials asked to disconnect power to the 80-unit complex and told guests to leave because of building violations in the ground-floor office.
City employees said no records of the office's approval were on file and tagged the resort as unsafe to occupy.
The plaintiffs, Dunedin Development Co. and the Sailwinds Condominium Association, called that "unreasonable," arguing the office had been in service for 25 years without any city notice of a violation.
The developers bought the property in 2008 out of bankruptcy for $4 million, the suit said, intending to renovate it with overnight rooms and waterfront dining.
The city has denied many of the developers' claims, including the order to vacate, and said in court documents that the plaintiffs waived their right to appeal under local code.
On Monday, the developer filed an amended complaint; the city asked to strike it the next day.
Filings in the suit were never brought before a public meeting, and commissioners on Thursday said they knew little of the details.
But during a time for public comment, Gregory Brady, owner of the downtown Gregory's Salon, mentioned the case and spoke highly of resort staff.
He said the city has earned a "burdensome" reputation for business due to rigid codes and criteria.
"We look around the city right now and we see a lot of vacant parcels. … Do we want this to be another one?" Brady asked. "If the city does win this one, what does the community win?"
City Attorney John Hubbard, asked by Mayor Dave Eggers for an update on the case, responded that he would supply commissioners with a confidential memo and urged them to keep quiet.
"Mr. Brady is absolutely correct. We're in a very good state in this litigation, enforcing our building codes just exactly the way we're supposed to," Hubbard said. "I would strongly encourage the commission not to say a word about it this evening or any other evening until the conclusion of the litigation."
Three local business owners, including Casa Tina owner Tina Avila and Soraya's Interior Design owner Soraya Shah-Mirany, followed with comments in support of Brady's.
"This hotel was a seedy, nightly rental dump and an eyesore for this community … (but) is now a beautiful, luxurious resort," Shah-Mirany said. "The only embarrassment now is that the city, my city, has treated this business this way when they have invested so much. … Let's stop harassing companies that want to help us."
Eggers responded that, though he could say little due to the lawsuit, the city's reputation has "been somewhat well-earned but is certainly starting to change."
Hubbard, asked again for an update, said the city was "in court because our laws are being violated" and pledged to say no more at the meeting.
Minutes later, he told City Hall that the business leaders' comments were "extraordinarily inappropriate."
"If I find out that the attorneys involved in this had anything to do with any of this effort to lobby the commission," Hubbard said, "I'm going to be extremely unhappy, and so is the Florida Bar."
Resort general manager Lou Anne Karlin responded that the "community support … had nothing to do with any legal field" and invited commissioners to tour the property.
On Friday, Brady said he was the one who motivated the residents to speak in support of the developers. With a blessing from the city, the resort could be a boon to the local economy. Instead, he said, the developers were on the verge of giving up.
"We were not motivated by an attorney. We were not asked by (the developers) to do that," Brady said. "We did it because we don't want to see them get frustrated and walk away, like we've seen other businesses do."
Drew Harwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4170.