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Developer sues Tampa Bay Water

Saddlewood Estates claims its subdivision project was maligned when a Tampa Bay Water spokeswoman said it was being built on wetlands.

By JAMES THORNER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 25, 2000


WESLEY CHAPEL -- The developer of a Wesley Chapel subdivision has sued Tampa Bay Water for defamation, accusing the regional water authority of killing home sales by claiming the development was built on wetlands.

Saddlewood Estates, a subdivision of upscale homes north of Quail Hollow Boulevard and west of Interstate 75, said it was maligned in a quote from a Tampa Bay Water spokeswoman that appeared the Pasco Times last year.

The story, which dealt with another Saddlewood Estates lawsuit to force the water authority to fix a road blamed for flooding, quoted spokeswoman Michelle Klase as saying Saddlewood was "basically building a subdivision in a wetland area."

The lawsuit, filed Friday in circuit court in Pinellas County, said Klase made the statements "with reckless disregard for whether they were false or not."

Saddlewood insists the words sullied its reputation. Not only is building homes in wetlands illegal, the lawsuit said, but potential homeowners are scared off by the threat of flooding. Developers are demanding damages of more than $15,000.

"As a result of Michelle Klase's statments, Saddlewood has suffered damages which include . . . loss of goodwill, loss of sales, loss of the value of its real property and loss of profits," the lawsuit reads.

Don Conn, an attorney for Tampa Bay Water, wouldn't comment on the lawsuit, details of which the authority had not received as of late Monday afternoon.

But he said Saddlewood's initial lawsuit -- blaming the authority's road for flooding during El Nino downpours in 1997 and 1998 -- is unwarranted. It has yet to go to trial.

"Our position is that the road was in place since the 1970s, well before development took place. We in no way caused the flooding," Conn said.

Saddlewood developers have blamed flooding for blighting about 75 acres of developable land. Homes in already-built parts of the neighborhood have sold for between $300,000 and $500,000.

Saddlewood attorney Robert McDonald denied the defamation suit was a way to increase pressure on the water authority to repair the road.

"You can't accuse a developer of building in a wetland in Florida," McDonald said. "That's a no-no."

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