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Town wary of developer facing suit

The developer who wants to build residential resort lodging in Yankeetown is being sued for breach of contract by landowners involved in a Pinellas County project.

Two different property owners, Donald Hoey and Hamaoui Properties Inc., claim Sherwood Partners LLC did not meet contract conditions for a proposed condominium development in Indian Rocks Beach.

Jim Sherwood, registered agent for Izaak Walton Investors LLC, the company that wants to build in Yankeetown, is also a manager of Sherwood Partners LLC.

"He (Sherwood) has big projects, big ideas and he gets people all fired up," said Clay Schuett, a Clearwater attorney who represents Hamaoui. "Then he delays until he can get all the properties. If he can't, he fails."

Sherwood would not comment on pending litigation, but said his company had planned in 2004 to build an entire block of condos in Indian Rocks Beach. Sherwood Partners entered into a number of contracts with property owners. He said the company never applied for permits with state agencies because the city rejected the proposal first.

But that's not the real story, said Joan Johnstone, administrative assistant in the Indian Rocks Beach planning department. She said Sherwood's proposal never made it to site plan review.

"He filed an application, but never completed it because he wouldn't give us the information we needed on the development," she said. "We were waiting and waiting and waiting."

Sherwood has been working on the Yankeetown project for more than a year. He plans residential resort units, a spa, cabana restaurant, and bed and breakfast, among other amenities.

For a town of 600 people, this might seem an unusual proposal. But it's not, said Bruce Day, planning director for the Withlacoochee Regional Planning Council.

"There's a land boom in rural Florida," he told residents at a recent Town Council meeting.

People and developers are traveling northward in Florida seeking better quality of life and more reasonable property values, said Chuck Dixon, community development director for Citrus County.

"Developers see the quality of life in small towns as a marketable commodity," he said.

This phenomenon is relatively new to Citrus, he said, as evidenced by the outcry in November when developers proposed building a six-story, extended-stay resort on Pete's Pier in Crystal River.

"Part of the growth in Yankeetown is stemming from Citrus moving northward," he said. Dixon also pointed out that Yankeetown has excellent deep-water access, better than that in Crystal River or Homosassa.

Yankeetown residents say they know their town's a nice place to live, and they want to keep it that way. For several weeks, rumors have been circulating about Sherwood and his abandoned project in Indian Rocks Beach.

"It certainly casts doubt on his intentions," resident Patricia Candela said.

Fred Geissler of Indian Rocks Beach said residents have every reason to be suspicious.

Geissler, owner of Fred's Service Station, said after six months of waiting, Sherwood canceled a contract with him on the last day possible.

"The $10,000 deposit's still sitting at the title company," he said. People in Yankeetown "better make sure they get some real money out of him."

Hamaoui Properties claims Sherwood opted out of their contract after the allowable window had passed.

"He probably couldn't get all the properties and tried to bail," said Schuett, the Clearwater lawyer who represents Hamaoui.

Hoey's case is a little more complicated. It focuses on a $25,000 good-faith deposit Sherwood made.

The suit alleges Sherwood did not submit "all necessary applications, site plans, engineering studies and design drawings to the city of Indian Rocks Beach or to the state of Florida."

As such, Hoey should retain the $25,000 deposit, in keeping with the contract, according to the suit.

But in a counterclaim, Sherwood Partners says it "made reasonable efforts to meet the contingencies during the due diligence period but was unable to obtain approval from the governmental agency in charge of development."

The lawyer for Sherwood, Thomas Jennings, refused to comment on the case.

Johnstone insists that a completed application was never filed with the city.

Amid all the gossip, Yankeetown Mayor Joanne Johannesson said she's waiting to see Sherwood's presentation Monday.

"We haven't done a background check (on Sherwood) yet, but I'm sure that will be part of the process," she said. "I feel like I've been hit by a can of worms."

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