Commission candidate John Nicolette's ugly legal fight is public record

DARBY — Everyone agrees that Natalie and Ray Sotomayor built a house on their rural tract that is smaller than what their contract allowed.

But what happened after construction began in 2005 turned into a nasty neighborhood feud that ensnared the court system, Pasco County code enforcement and the county attorney, Robert Sumner.

It's a story that's significant today because the other principal player was John Nicolette — Sumner's son-in-law — a man who now wants to be a county commissioner.

Since Nicolette has no previous experience in elected office, the dispute represents what little can be gleaned from the public record about the candidate's interactions with others.

The Sotomayors say Nicolette ruined their view and sabotaged their attempts to sell the property by parking an unsightly caravan of old carts, a truck and a silver camper along a dirt road across from their front porch.

They say Nicolette sued them while offering to buy their property at cost.

He eventually moved the equipment. Then he built a large pole barn in easy view of their yard.

"The integrity of a person running for public office should be impeccable. … It's ridiculous the way this man treats his own neighbor," said Ray Sotomayor, whose wife's construction business gave $500 in March to Nicolette's opponent in Tuesday's primary, Commissioner Ted Schrader.

"I know the Sotomayors might not be totally innocent, but the perception (of Nicolette) wasn't good," said code enforcement supervisor Pat Phillips, who investigated the dispute.

Nicolette said he did nothing wrong. The Sotomayors' complaints and the Times' questions about the dispute, he said, are unfair and unfounded.

"I'm trying to be truthful and honest," Nicolette said recently. "I have the right to use my property."

'A stupid mistake'

The Sotomayors bought 20 acres near Nicolette's Crooked Creek Ranch for $300,000 in 2005. They signed a purchase agreement that mandated no home be built smaller than 3,000 square feet. They built one house larger than that — one they now live in.

But they also built a second home to sell later that was half the required size, violating the contract.

They say Nicolette told them it would be okay, even though there is nothing in writing.

"It was a stupid mistake," Ray Sotomayor said.

Nicolette said he never gave them his blessing for a smaller home, and he noted Ray Sotomayor is an attorney, so he should be smart enough to follow the letter of the deal.

"The question I have is, why did they put their house there in that way?" Nicolette asked.

After the Sotomayors refused to change their plans during 2005, Nicolette and two former property owners who sold the land to the couple sued in January 2006.

In the suit, Nicolette said he was trying to protect the character of the surrounding land he was developing. He also said real estate listings showed the Sotomayors were trying to "leave the area" discretely.

But the Sotomayors, who were trying to sell their properties, say Nicolette was pressuring them for another motive: As a former owner of their land, he wanted their property as the real estate boom was peaking.

The lawsuit asked the court to order the Sotomayors to build a bigger house, or sell back half of their land for half of the $300,000 sales price.

While the matter wound its way through court, a new front emerged in the battle: the sightline from the Sotomayors' porch.

Refuse to move

In January 2006, according to the Sotomayors, Nicolette parked a row of trucks and farm equipment along the property line, in view of the Sotomayors' porch.

Natalie Sotomayor and her father, Dudley Hampton, complained that month to code enforcement. Notes show code enforcement officials determined the equipment was allowed because it was farm equipment on a farm. But Natalie Sotomayor kept complaining.

In March 2006, code enforcement supervisor Pat Phillips said he visited the scene. The row of vehicles matched photos provided by Ray Sotomayor dated in January. Phillips spoke with Nicolette.

"I said, 'Look, you have more than 200 acres, can't you move (the equipment) someplace else?' " Phillips recalled asking Nicolette.

Nicolette refused. He cited the Florida "Right to Farm" act, which protects farms from being considered nuisances or falling under undue government regulation, Phillips said.

Phillips said Nicolette told him, "I'll tell you what, if Bob Sumner tells me to move it, I'll move it."

Because Nicolette cited state law in his defense, Phillips kicked the matter up to the County Attorney's Office, then headed by Sumner.

Phillips said he found out afterward that Sumner is Nicolette's father-in-law. Sumner also had once co-owned the land with Nicolette.

In May 2006, another code enforcement officer issued a warning to Nicolette, citing county law that says residents can't leave out junk that creates an eyesore for neighbors, according to county notes and Phillips.

Nicolette said he doesn't recall any warning. But he told the Times he chose the spot for the equipment because it was near the dirt road and away from his house — and not because it was near the Sotomayor home.

In July, code enforcement notes show assistant county attorneys — who report to Sumner— would inspect Nicolette's property. By that December, the case was closed at the direction of an unnamed assistant county attorney, according to the notes. The notes show the equipment had been moved, and there was no evidence of any violation.

Sumner said he spoke to Assistant County Attorney Kristi Wooden about the dispute, and offered to take to her to see Nicolette's property. But he said he ended up not going with her, and said he had no other role in the case, acknowledging the potential conflict of interest.

"I know that there had been a feud with John and his neighbors for a long, long time, and I know there's a lot of bad blood there on their side," Sumner said.

"And maybe there is quite a bit on John's side."

'I have my rights'

The last event on the lawsuit's docket was August 2006. At the same time, Nicolette was seeking support to run for a state House seat left open by Ken Littlefield's resignation. State. Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, got the nod.

The suit was dropped by both sides in February 2007. Then in October, Nicolette, a member of the State Fair board, was appointed to Coastal Rivers Basin Board by Gov. Charlie Crist. A month later, Nicolette filed his first paperwork to run for County Commission.

According to code enforcement notes, the case over the vehicles at the farm was closed in December 2006 at the direction of assistant county attorneys, who aren't identified.

"Vehicles and other debris moved from the front of the property," the note says.

But something else went up virtually right where the equipment sat: the pole barn.

Ray Sotomayor says his family still wants to sell the properties and move on. It's a tough real estate market, though. But he uses tougher language to describe living next to Nicolette: "hell."

Nicolette stands by his actions.

"I have a family," he said. "I have my rights."

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6232.

Commission candidate John Nicolette's ugly legal fight is public record 08/21/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 26, 2008 4:43pm]

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