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Judge dismisses suit against Saddlebrook

The complaint centered on a claim that the resort's dam caused flooding on nearby property in heavy rains.

By JEAN HELLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 7, 2000


DADE CITY -- A Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Court judge Monday dismissed a suit filed on behalf of a retired Seabee who claimed that a small dam erected by his Wesley Chapel neighbor, Saddlebrook Resorts, caused his property to flood in heavy rains.

Judge Maynard Swanson did not rule on the merits of the complaint but dismissed the lawsuit "with prejudice" because it was not filed by property owner Frank Mascioli, but by a neighbor, Lajuana Porter. Swanson said Porter couldn't benefit from the outcome of the case, therefore, she had no standing to file the complaint, according to Douglas Manson, her Tampa attorney.

"We're stunned, just stunned," Manson said. "It was a very unusual ruling, particularly because the complaint made it clear that Lajuana Porter would receive any damages that resulted from the case. It's pretty clear to me she stood to benefit."

Greg Riehle, vice president of Saddlebrook, issued a statement following the ruling.

"We are gratified with the court's decision," Riehle said. "It confirms what we believed from the beginning -- that the case has no merit."

The Southwest Florida Water Management District, involved because it issued the permits for a court-ordered redesign of Saddlebrook's stormwater treatment system that included the dam, issued a statement through spokesman Michael Molligan:

"The District is pleased that the matter has been resolved. Because the . . . filing was dismissed with prejudice, it brings some closure to the matter."

Dismissal with prejudice means the case cannot be refiled by Lajuana Porter. Manson said options ranged from appealing the Swanson ruling to refiling the suit with Mascioli as the plaintiff. Mascioli could not be reached for comment.

The case caught Mascioli, 72, in the tangled legal web of a decades-old dispute between Saddlebrook and the Porter family, owners of Wiregrass Ranch, which abuts the resort to the east and, sitting near the intersection of I-75 and State Road 54 in south central Pasco County, is one of the most valuable pieces of undeveloped land in the region.

For years, the Porters have been trying to prove that Saddlebrook dumps excess stormwater onto ranch property, expanding wetlands and making less of the 5,100-acre ranch suitable for development.

Saddlebrook denies it and has prevailed continuously in court.

During a court-ordered redesign of its stormwater treatment system, Saddlebrook built a small dam on the property line it shares with Mascioli on the east side of the resort. The dam crossed what Mascioli described as a swale that carried stormwater runoff away from his wetlands and into a golf course pond on Saddlebrook's property.

The pond is part of the resort's stormwater detention and treatment system. Eventually, water from that pond and others downstream flows off Saddlebrook and onto Wiregrass.

Don Porter, one of the owners of Wiregrass, said he felt badly about Mascioli's situation because he thought the dam was Saddlebrook's attempt to hold back water from resort land, thereby reducing discharge onto the ranch.

"If we hadn't been fighting to keep excess water off our land, Saddlebrook might not have felt it necessary to dam Mr. Mascioli's property, and Mr. Mascioli and his neighbors wouldn't be flooded," Porter said last summer.

The Porters believed that because Mascioli is not in good health, he would not be able to go through the rigors of depositions and other court proceedings, and because Porter was involved in his own litigation against Wiregrass, his should not be the name on the suit. That is how Lajuana Porter, Don Porter's wife, became the plaintiff.

Tom Dempsey, whose family owns Saddlebrook, said last year he might be amenable to lowering the dam, but he could not be reached Monday for comment on whether he is still willing to do that.

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