by Michael Salerno
For Hometown News
PONCE INLET - The attorney for a developer that owns 16 acres of riverfront property rejected town leaders' counterproposal to a settlement offer aimed at ending the developer's long-standing property rights lawsuit against the town.
Pacetta LLC's attorney said the town's counteroffer to his client's $35 million settlement proposal - a one-time single payment of $1.5 million - is not enough to pay the bills racked up by Pacetta property owners Lyder and Simone Johnson through years of fighting the city over a proposed working waterfront development that included dry boat storage.
"This offer makes no sense in the real world we have to live in," Peter Heebner, Pacetta's attorney, said of the town's proposal. "... We categorically reject it."
Mayor Gary Smith said $1.5 million is the most money the city can legally offer based on the city's financial situation. The money would be raised through additional revenues by raising the town's millage rate to $6.25 per $1,000 of assessed value.
Mayor Smith said the Johnsons' $35 million proposal - which would have been paid out over a 31-year period - would not have been acceptable unless it went to a public vote.
"The council cannot obligate the town to a multiyear commitment without a vote of the citizens," he said.
The Johnsons also sought entitlements that would have enabled them to develop a working waterfront on the 16 acres of property they own. The town's counterproposal did not include any entitlements, but stated the town would "timely consider in good faith" any amendments to the town's comprehensive plan, land use and development code, and ordinances requested by the Johnsons.
The litigation began after town leaders passed development restrictions that only affected properties the Johnsons owned, supported by a 2008 charter referendum - which was invalidated in a 2010 court ruling - that restricted the size of dry boat storage and prohibited it in the zoning district where Pacetta's 16 acres are located.
Town sentiment over the ongoing litigation has been divisive. In previous town meetings, many citizens said they would rather pay more taxes to fund a settlement so the town could bring closure to the litigation.
But at a recent town meeting, most of the speakers urged the town to take its chances in court rather than give a large sum of taxpayer dollars to the Johnsons.
One of those speakers was Alice Washington, a former town employee who's lived in Ponce Inlet for 42 years. She said the town never did anything illegal to hurt anybody and urged against a settlement with the Johnsons.
"I don't think this town should be here to make them rich," she said to the sound of thunderous applause from the crowd.
A few speakers, such as Susan Midkiff, voiced opposition to the town's offer, calling it "a joke" and "insulting to the Johnsons."
With no other settlement options on the table, a court date is expected where town leaders will appeal Judge William Parsons' April ruling that the town inversely condemned the Johnsons by taking property rights away from them. After the appeal hearing, a trial is expected where a jury will decide how much in damages, if any, the Johnsons should receive. The Johnsons previously stated they would seek as much as $55 million in damages.