BELLEAIR - In this small town with many wealthy families, the Doyles are among the wealthiest and best known.
There’s a Doyle Park and a Doyle Family Gymnasium. The Doyles have contributed to many town causes. And since buying the town’s golf club with its 18-hole course two years ago, they have spent lavishly on upgrades in preparation for hosting the first LPGA tournament to be held in the Tampa Bay area in three decades.
On July 16, the Doyles went before the town commission seeking approval for the latest phase of their club enhancements. Commissioner Thomas Kurey voted in favor.
What happened next has roiled this otherwise placid town of 4,200 in mid-Pinellas County
The day after the vote, Kurey sold a house overlooking the club’s golf course to Daniel Doyle Sr. for $1.65 million cash. It was by far the most ever paid for a house in that immediate area, both in dollar amount and price per square foot. And it didn’t sit well with some Belleair residents who learned of the sale a few weeks later.
"When a relationship or transaction creates even the appearance of impropriety, regardless of any actual impropriety, the official is supposed to abstain from voting,'' Whitney Wilson wrote on Nextdoor, the neighborhood social media site. "This never happened and that’s unethical.''
Nextdoor has been flooded with comments, some agreeing with Wilson, others blasting her and calling Kurey an honest man who simply made a smart real estate deal that will help everyone’s property values. Even though he didn’t disclose the pending sale before the vote, Kurey did not violate state ethics rules, the executive director of the Florida Commission on Ethics said in an opinion
The director, however, advised another Belleair commissioner — who is employed by the Doyle-owned Pelican Golf Club — to abstain from voting on any club-related issues because of a conflict of interest.
The club’s owners, Doyle and son Daniel Jr., did not respond to phone messages and requests for comment relayed through people who know them. Scott DeMuesy said he and his wife were drawn to Belleair for many reasons, including its then-public golf course. Their favorable impression of the town began to change with the Doyles’ purchase of the course.
"I found out one commissioner had taken a job at the Pelican club and another had become a member of the club and sold his investment property to Dan Doyle Sr.‚'' DeMuesy said. "So it was at that point I thought things appeared a bit too cozy with some of the commissioners and the Doyles.'’
Belleair is tucked into an area bordered by Clearwater to the north, Belleair Bluffs to the south, the Pinellas Trail to the east and the Intracoastal Waterway to the west. A community of stately houses on wide, quiet streets, its residents have included wrestler Hulk Hogan; the founder of the Pinch A Penny Pool, Patio & Spa stores; and a couple who donated $25 million to the University of South Florida business school.
The Doyles founded DEX Imaging, which bills itself as the nation’s largest independent provider of printers and other office equipment. The son lives in an 8,500-square-foot waterfront mansion in Belleair; the elder Doyle lived one house away in a 12,000-square-foot home that was hit by lightning in December and burned down.
For a town its size, Belleair has an abundance of golf courses. The private 36-hole Belleair Country Club dates back to 1897 and the development of the Belleview Biltmore Hotel. (Part of it lives on as the Belleview Inn.) The town also owned a public course, designed by famed golf course designer Donald Ross.
In 2016, the Doyles approached the commission about buying the public course for $3.8 million, $300,000 more than the town paid for it three years earlier. Though the course was making a profit, commissioners unanimously approved the sale in 2017 as a way to raise money for projects like improving the town’s drainage system.
The Doyles’ had ambitious plans for the club. To help redevelop Ross’ original design, more than 800 trees, some of them invasive species, were removed and replaced by red maples, live oaks and thousands of shrubs. A new pro-shop/grill room opened last year and a large new clubhouse is under construction. There also will be a learning center and three, two-story "villas'' with a total of 28 rooms.
Though residents liked the preservation of green space, many hoped the course would remain public. Instead, it is now a private club with membership by invitation only.
Peter Kyres, whose house is next to the course, said it "looks beautiful out there'' since the Doyles took over. But he laments some of the changes.
"When I first purchased the home, you’d see families with their kids and dogs walking along the golf cart path,'' he said. "There wasn’t any kind of trespass enforcement, people for their part respected the premises. All that is lost now because you can’t step foot beyond the path or you’ll be be stopped by security.''
Kyres said he’s also concerned that the shrubs planted along the edge of the course could eventually block residents’ views. And he wonders if the LPGA tournament to be held May 11-17 might serve as an excuse to further increase security, including the addition of a fence.
As the Doyles continued to seek approvals for various phases of their club, the chair of Belleair’s finance committee, Tom Olson, raised the issue of potential conflicts of interest.
"People can’t accept money from anyone doing business with the town; they cannot disclose sensitive information and they can’t be employed by anyone doing business with the town,'' Olson said at an April commission meeting. He was referring to Commissioner Karla Rettstatt, also the deputy mayor, who had been hired as the Pelican’s Golf Club’s membership director in September.
Rettstatt said she needed the job but denied a conflict. "If people don’t like what I am doing for them, they can vote me out of office,'' she said. (All five commissioners are volunteers elected to three-year terms.)
The town’s attorney, David Ottinger, agreed with Rettstatt that she had no conflict. However, he sought an opinion from the state ethics commission before the July 16 meeting, when Rettstatt and others would consider several matters related to the golf club. Yes, Rettstatt did have a conflict and should abstain from voting, C. Christopher Anderson III, executive director of the ethics panel, wrote in an opinion.
About the same time, Belleair Commissioner Kurey also asked for an opinion.
“I have developed social relationships with members of the Doyle family and I am a member of Pelican Golf Club, which is owned by the Doyles,'' Kurey wrote. He said he had been invited to go on a golf trip to New York on a private plane "provided'' by Daniel Doyle Jr. and had contracted to sell a house to Daniel Doyle Sr. Kurey didn’t give a figure but said the price "represents the approximate fair market value of the property.'’
In Kurey’s case, there was no conflict in voting, Anderson wrote: Kurey did not have an ownership stake in the club, did not work for the Doyles and was not a "business associate'' as defined by state law. He was advised, though, to pay for his share of the flight costs.
At the July commission meeting, Ottinger, the town attorney, disclosed the opinion regarding Rettstatt. But neither he nor Kurey mentioned that Kurey had sought an opinion about his own situation and the fact he was selling a house to one of the golf club owners.
Why didn’t the men mention it?
"There’s no obligation to disclose a private transaction that represents no conflict of interest,'' Ottinger said. "People are trying to make something out of nothing. I don’t think you could get a more honorable commissioner than Tom Kurey.''
In an email to the Tampa Bay Times, Kurey said he did everything "above board.''
"I disclosed everything not only to our town attorney but also the Florida Commission on Ethics,'' he wrote "I have a sworn duty to the residents of Belleair and have never breached that duty — and I never will.''
It was unlikely however, that Belleair residents would have known about Kurey’s pending sale before the vote. The ethics commission’s response to Kurey was not posted on its web site. The house was never on the market. And because the sale hadn’t closed yet, there was no public record of it.
While Kurey didn’t have to disclose anything, he probably should have, said Ben Wilcox, research director of the watchdog group Integrity Florida.
"You need to be sensitive to how things appear to the public,'' Wilcox said, "and in the end this is going to cause the public to have less confidence in the actions of this public official.''
Kurey, who owns an investment firm, bought the house on Hibiscus Road last year for $365,000. He demolished most of it and enlarged it at a $235,800 permitted cost to 3,981 square feet.
On May 22, Kurey said, he and his wife contracted to sell the house to Doyle Sr., who had lost his own home in the fire and “asked me on a number of occasions if we planned to sell." The transaction closed July 17 — a day after the vote — for $1.65 million or $414 per square foot
According to the Multiple Listing Service, which tracks residential sales, four other houses on Hibiscus Road overlooking the Doyles’ golf club have sold in the past two years. The largest, 3,086 square feet, sold a year ago for $644,378 or $208.81 per square foot. The most recent sale was in April for a 2,159-square-foot house that went for $425,000 or $196.85 per square foot.
Three of the houses were built in the 1960s and one in 1985.
Kurey said his price was in line with new construction with "similar high-end finishes and customization.'' A house on Hibiscus that sold for $644,400 last year and is being rebuilt at a permitted cost of $689,000 will be worth $450 a square foot when finished, he estimated.
J.P. Murphy, the town manager, said he initially wondered about the price. He concluded it was "perfectly justifiable'' because of the new construction and rising home values in Belleair.
On Aug. 13, Ottinger, the town’s attorney, sent a certified letter to the resident who posted the first comment on Nextdoor about the price and timing of the sale. The letter, calling her statements "false and defamatory,'' demanded she take down all of her posts and apologize to Kurey.