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Is Pat Neal trying an end-run in Venice?

Written by on Sunday, September 10, 2023

After angry neighbors sue him over a shopping plaza project, the developer takes action.


By Ramon Lopez

Original Air Date: Sept. 8, 2023


Official Transcript

Host: Angry neighbors in Venice have sued developer Pat Neal over his plans to build a shopping plaza on a piece of land he had presented to them as a wetland preserve. But Neal is not sitting still, and he took his case back to the Venice Planning Board. Is this an end-run around a possible ruling by a judge against his project? WSLR News reporter Ramon Lopez asked Pat Neal, to find out.

Ramon Lopez: A high-stakes chess game, of sorts, continues between wealthy real estate developer Pat Neal and those opposed to his plan to rezone 10 acres of open space and wetland at the intersection of Jacaranda Boulevard and Laurel Road in Venice for a grocery-store anchored shopping center.

Angry Venice homeowners in mid-July lost a fight with the Venice City Council on the matter. In a five-to-two vote, the council gave the green light to the developer’s Village at Laurel and Jacaranda. This, despite the fact, that the Venice Planning Commission had previously rejected the zoning change in a 4-3 vote.

The land in dispute is in the Cielo subdivision of the 500-acre Milano development straddling Jacaranda Blvd. Plans call for a 70,000 square foot shopping center on the 10.4 acres, including 6.6 acres of wetland. It is expected to feature a 47,000 square foot Publix grocery, a 5,000 square-foot restaurant, and other stores.

Local residents claim they were promised by Neal that the existing wetland – visited by endangered birds and other wildlife -would never be bulldozed for an intrusive commercial development. They are also concerned about the noise, congestion and pedestrian safety issues that come with a new shopping center.

Opponents say Neal used a “bait and switch” scheme to sell houses there. Neal said he is within his legal rights to move ahead with his plans.

The project’s opponents appealed the Venice City Council’s rezoning decision in early August to the Twelfth Judicial Circuit, seeking review of the rezoning in favor of Pat Neal’s Border & Jacaranda Holding. They asked Judge Danielle Brewer to either cancel the City Council’s decision, or direct the council to review the decision. The appeal process may take up to one year.

Meanwhile, Neal has come up with another approach to move his commercial real estate project forward pending the judge’s decision. A month ago, his lawyers argued before the Venice Planning Commission that he holds title to the 10 acres in question and thus can do whatever he wants with it. He sought what’s known as a final plat designation that would allow him
to move ahead with his plans.

But Roger Clark, Venice’s planning director, said a preliminary plat designation is first required. He also said approval of the preliminary plat amendment is contingent on a revised Milano Binding Master Plan going into effect. Judge Brewer will decide that.

Neal asked the Planning Commission to rule on the matter. The seven-member commission – short of one member who was on vacation in Alaska – deadlocked at 3-3 on the issue. This left it up to the planning commission to meet again on Sept. 5 to finalize things. By a vote of 5-2, they supported Roger Clark, representing a minor loss for Neal.

This action would lead to a crucial second hearing that day to determine whether the preliminary plat application would be presented to the Venice City Council for a final vote sometime in the future. How the current City Council body will rule is unclear.

Project opponents, led by Ken Baron, asked the planning commission to bring in an independent authority to decide whether Neal actually holds title to the land.

Ken Baron: I urge you to obtain an independent title opinion. We should just not use the applicant’s lawyer to make that assessment. We’ve sat here and listened to this and determined that this decision is ultimately subject to and contingent on the appeal. So we have plenty of time to get an independent evaluation of this to make sure everything is correct, and then pass this on to the City Council, if ready to go, either way.

R.L.: But Ed Vogler, Neal’s attorney, told the planning commission that the matter was already crystal clear.

Ed Vogler: While I understand the emotions of the people who want to talk about the ultimate use of this property, those matters are really independent from the status or type of license for these title opinions.

R.L.: By a vote of seven to nothing, the planning commission passed the matter on to
the City Council.

A circuit court judgement against the City Council would make Neal’s latest chess move all for naught.

After the planning commission meeting, Pat Neal said he was not surprised by the vote. He told WSLR-News that “everything in land use is based on competent and substantial evidence. Everything we provided showed this was the case. No, I was not surprised.”

Pat Neal

He also expressed optimism that the Venice City Council will vote in his favor. Neal predicts his plat application will be approved by the council “most likely by a strong vote”.

As regards the pending circuit court ruling, Neal said: “appeals to circuit courts are part of the real estate business. The
judge will review the evidence, and we think she will rule in our favor, and our re-zoning will go forward.”

Neal said this latest move does not represent a “fallback” position he would employ should the judge rule against the Venice City Council’s decision in his favor. Said Neal: “I think everything will come together. I won’t have to rely on any fallback positions. We have proven the city code, proven the law, proven the facts, and this will end up in our favor”

This is Ramon Lopez for WSLR News.

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