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Subdivision mired in accusations

Homes in Virginia Crossing sit empty as a developer, investor and Dunedin officials trade charges.

By LEON M. TUCKER

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001


DUNEDIN -- The future of a subdivision that promised some of the best neighborhood living in the city continues to be plagued by troubles. Its developer has been slapped with five lawsuits, and numerous liens have been placed on homes by companies claiming to be owed big money.

But the developer has a message. "It will eventually get done," said Andrew Strong, president of Highmark Homes of Dunedin. "Probably in the next three to six months."

A tall order, considering Dunedin city officials have refused to allow residents to move into their new Virginia Crossing homes until Highmark completes a checklist of 38 improvements.

The work, which includes cleaning storm drains, replacing driveways and repairing roads, would cost Highmark an estimated $35,000.

Highmark has completed five of the 38 requests, city records show.

Strong says he is unable to pay for the work because because an "accounting error" that occurred last year and wiped out his company's operating capital.

Pinellas County court records show Strong is suing Canadian developer John Gabber and his daughter, Angela Gabber, who were primary investors in the Virginia Crossing project. The Gabbers put up the money to purchase the land near Virginia Street and Keene Road.

The suit seeks an unspecified amount for the collection of "unlawful interest" on a $600,000 loan the Gabbers made to Strong. The Gabbers already have been paid about $1.7-million, Strong said.

John Gabber disagrees with his former business partner.

"He's a big liar," John Gabber said. "I've been working with them since 1995 when they started Country Grove East. Everything went fine, but when I bought one-third of the land for Virginia Crossing, they were spending the money like crazy."

Gabber said construction of six model homes was unnecessary, as was the leasing of luxury vehicles for personal use.

"When they started with Virginia Crossing . . . the relationship was pretty good," Gabber said. "They paid the interest on the land until Oct. 1999, which is when they ran really short."

Gabber has filed a countersuit against Strong for the remaining $400,000 he says Highmark owes him. Court dates on both cases have yet to be assigned.

Strong declined to talk more about the case.

"I can't go into that," he said. "That's why we're going to court. It's got to go before a judge and the judge has got to decide."

As for the infrastructure work, Strong says the city should share the blame.

Strong and Dunedin officials agreed that a $70,000 bond would be made available to the city should construction problems arise and Highmark is unable to finish the work.

"When the bond was due, the project was not totally complete," said Bob Brotherton, director of public works for Dunedin. "So we prepared a list of what needed to be done and requested the bond, but (the bank) refused to honor that."

The city continues to refuse to do the estimated $60,000 in infrastructure work.

Brotherton said the city's attorney, John Hubbard, considered suing the bank, but no such action has been taken.

Hubbard could not be reached for comment.

"The city of Dunedin had the money at their disposal but they failed to call up the performance bond and it expired," Strong said. "The money was basically in their hands and they basically forgot about it. Now they're coming after me saying I have to pay for it."

Meanwhile, Highmark owes another $378,000 to four companies for services and materials. County court records show the bulk of the debt, $287,148, is owed to Cox Lumber Co.

Citing financial troubles, and in exchange for the city's permission to allow homeowners to move into the remaining 17 homes, Strong proposed to deduct $2,020 from the sale of each home to pay for the rest of the work. But city officials rejected the proposal.

"The city of Dunedin is supposed to look out for the taxpayers' best interest," Strong said. "They need to be accountable for their mistakes and they should be trying to help the situation."

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