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Town accused of conspiracy

By ELENA LESLEY
Published February 21, 2007


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YANKEETOWN - Developers filed suit against 17 Yankeetown residents and the town Monday, alleging that officials were covertly trying to thwart their application to build a resort hotel on the Withlacoochee River.

Representatives from Izaak Walton Investors LLC delivered a copy of the lawsuit to the Town Council at Monday night's regular meeting.

The suit comes after a zoning consultant recently denied large portions of Izaak Walton's development proposal. Rebecca Jetton, a zoning consultant from Tallahassee, said the plans did not comply with the town's comprehensive plan.

The suit claims that there are more sinister forces at play.

Delays in processing application materials, political stalemates and Jetton's findings have all contributed to an "ongoing conspiracy to delay, obstruct and thwart the IWI development," according to the suit.

The developers seek damages for lack of due process and alleged Sunshine Law violations regarding their project, as well as injunctive relief from a building moratorium that the council has tentatively approved. The suit also asks that several officials and staff members be barred from any association with the development because of their bias.

"It's unfortunate that the present Yankeetown administration feels the laws and rules don't apply to them," said Jim Sherwood, one of the developers with Izaak Walton Investors LLC.

The suit details the entire Yankeetown saga, from the developers' perspectives.

When preliminary plans for the development surfaced more than a year ago, local obstructionists worked to spread a "campaign of misinformation," the suit says.

Council members and staffers started to defect because of "recent smear campaigns, anonymous allegations and threats," the suit reads.

In July, then-Gov. Jeb Bush intervened, declaring Yankeetown in a "state of emergency" and calling for a special election to fill vacant spots on the Town Council.

Overwhelmingly, residents voted for candidates who opposed zoning changes for developers. While this initially eased some tensions in the town, developers are now accusing the new officials of secretly trying to undermine the development.

Council members have met on numerous occasions, in violation of the Sunshine Laws, to plot their strategy against the development, the suit claims.

"They're alleging a lot of things," Mayor Dawn Clary said of the developers, and "there are lots of errors."

The suit also charges that Jetton, whom the council hired as a consultant to review large-scale projects, "never functioned in a municipal zoning capacity but is experienced in rewriting comprehensive plans to stop development."

Council member Marsha Drew said she didn't understand why the developers would make such a claim, considering they had conceded at a public meeting that Jetton was well-qualified for the position.

Though Jetton originally told Izaak Walton Investors that the application was solid, she was pressured by council members to change her mind, the suit reads.

In violation of Sunshine Laws, town officials met multiple times with Jetton, including "at a 'dinner party' hosted at the home of Vice Mayor Marsha Drew," where they "acted in concert to negatively influence her review of IWI's submittals," the suit says.

Sherwood said he is preparing an appeal of Jetton's findings to the Yankeetown board of adjustment.

Clary said she was mystified by the developers' claims that officials had manipulated Jetton's decision.

"The zoning is in black and white," she said. "I knew they wouldn't be happy with Ms. Jetton's work, but zoning isn't a subjective thing."

Elena Lesley can be reached at 564-3627 or elesley@sptimes.com.

[Last modified February 20, 2007, 20:10:26]


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