Venice neighbors raise $40,000 to take developer Pat Neal to court
Written by WSLR News on Thursday, August 17, 2023
After the city of Venice allowed Neal Communities to build on what was supposed to be a natural preserve, neighbors fired back by hiring a lawyer.
By Ramon Lopez
Original Air Date: August 16, 2023
Johannes Werner: A small town yields to a big developer, and now it is being sued by residents and neighbors. After the city of Venice allowed Neal Communities to build on what was supposed to be a natural preserve, neighbors hired a lawyer and became the third recent case of a lawsuit against a city or county here over development. Ramon Lopez continues to keep a close eye on that story in Venice.
Host: It’s round two for a powerful punching machine versus a lightweight challenger, who says it’s a prize fight to protect legal rights and endangered wildlife. In one corner is heavyweight Pat Neal, supported by his sparring partner, the Venice City Council. On the opposite side of the ring is the novice contender, the North Venice Neighborhood Alliance and several homeowners who hope to bounce back from a bruising knockdown in the first round before the City Council.
In a 5-2 vote on July the 11th, the VCC gave the green light to developer Pat Neal’s Village at Laurel and Jacaranda. Venice Mayor Nick Pachota and Council Member Rachel Frank voted against it in a 5-2 decision. The Venice Planning Commission had previously rejected the zoning change in a 4-3 vote.
The land in dispute is in the Cielo subdivision in the 500-acre Milano development straddling Jacaranda Boulevard. Plans call for a 70,000 square foot shopping center on 10.4 acres, including 6.6 acres of existing 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 over for an intrusive commercial development. They’re also concerned about the noise, traffic congestion and pedestrian safety issues that come from a new shopping center. Opponents say Neal used a bait and switch scheme to sell houses. Neal said he is within his legal rights to move ahead with his plans.
The project’s opponents had 30 days to ask a circuit judge to review the VCC’s decision, but before they could go to circuit court to appeal the VCC’s vote on the controversial rezoning amendment, the upset residents had to raise enough cash to pay for anticipated legal fees. The group quickly raised $40,000 from donations.
On August 10, the shopping center opponents filed a petition in the 12 Judicial Circuit seeking review of the VCC’s rezoning decision. The petition was filed by Attorney Ralf Brookes against the city council and Border and Jacaranda Holdings LLC, a Pat Neal company. It asked that Judge Danielle Brewer either cancel the city council’s decision or direct VCC to review its decision. Meanwhile, the filing of the appeal does not preclude Neal from moving forward with the project.
Ken Baron, an affected homeowner, military vet and board member of the North Venice Neighborhood Alliance or NVNA is a leading the fight to stop Neal. He moved to Venice two-and-a-half years ago to finally plant roots after retiring from the U.S. Air Force after 35 years of service and constant moves around the world.
Ken Baron: I moved so much in the military. I had 13 or 14 PCS moves, and that’s not even counting deployments, living in plywood buildings in Afghanistan, you know, all of that. 13 or 14 permanent moves. I’m not moving again.
Well, that’s what I thought when we ate the contract to build this place, back in 2020. We did our homework. Okay, we just didn’t walk in here from some other cold state. Okay, I’ve lived here. I’ve been a resident of this state for almost 30 years. My wife is a real estate agent in the state. We know what goes on here. I’ve lived in Fort Walton Beach. I’ve lived in Valrico. I’ve lived in Tampa, and now here. And I’ve seen what developers have done.
So we did our homework to make sure we mark an X, [can’t] have any commercial shopping plazas anywhere near us. Because we run, we’re on the roads, we’re riding our bicycles. We’re jogging. We’re walking, right, so we wanted a quiet area to retire.
Host: The appeal process may take up to one year, and Baron is hopeful.
KB: You know, I have no idea what they’re going to do. You know, and to be honest with you, our mentality in the North Venice Neighborhood Association is “one objective at a time.” One objective at a time. This objective is, we get the appeal filed. Well, first, of course, the objective was to raise the money. Okay. And then we raised the money, so the next objective was to get an attorney and file the appeal, which we’ve done. So now we just have to wait and see.
I’ll tell you, I expect the judge to be impartial. Our hand has been forced because of the Venice City Council, and so we had to take this from a political arena and bring it to a judicial arena, so we could get an impartial review of the law. I’m hoping the judge will rule in our favor. I’m hoping the judge will look at the law and look at the transcript and look at how the city council handled the hearing, and will rule in our favor.
Host: Baron said the dispute now needs to be settled in court and could make it as far as the Florida Supreme Court. The unhappy homeowners have not decided on filing a lawsuit, should they lose the appeal.
KB: We will cross that bridge when we come to it. One objective at a time. Remember, I’m a military man. One objective at a time. We have taken nothing off the table. And again, it’s our supporters are very confident in us and supportive of us. And we’ve raised the money that we needed to proceed with the appeal within six days.
People are tired of what’s going on in this city, they’re tired of what’s going on in the county, and it showed in the speed that we achieved our financial goals. This project is a perfect example of irresponsible development. This is a large-scale commercial development, right smack dab in the middle of a residential area that is designed to service 6,000+ homes all over this region.
Host: Baron will decide whether he stays in Venice after the commercial development dispute plays out. The former military man says he doesn’t want to pack up and move again, but he says it’s not out of the question.
KB: My wife and I have already started talking exit strategy.
Host: By deadline, neither Pat Neal nor Venice City Council members responded to requests for comment by WSLR News.
This is Ramon Lopez for WSLR News.