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Venice neighbors vs. Neal: Citizens plan to take the developer to court

Written by on Sunday, July 23, 2023

The North Venice Neighborhood Alliance has raised $22,000 so far for a lawyer to confront Pat Neal’s “bait and switch scheme.”

By Ramon Lopez

Original Air Date: July 21, 2023


Official Transcript

Johannes Werner: Developer Pat Neal got green light from the Venice City Council to build a shopping plaza. But neighbors are pushing back. The North Venice Neighborhood Alliance has raised $15,000 to pay for a lawyer. Ramon Lopez tells us what may be next.

Host: Two dozen protesters who demonstrated their opposition to the land deal say, “We have only just begun the fight,” and the Venice residents are raising money to appeal the city council’s final approval of the controversial rezoning ordinance.

In a 5-2 vote on July 11, city council gave the green light to developer Pat Neal’s Village at Laurel and Jacaranda. The land in dispute is in the CLO subdivision in the 500-acre Molano development, straddling Jacaranda Boulevard. Plans call for a 70,000 square foot shopping center on 10.4 acres, including 6.6 acres of existing a wetland. It is expected to feature a 47,000 square foot grocery store, 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 that comes with 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 from July the 11th to ask the Circuit Court to review the city council’s decision. But before they could go to Circuit Court, the upset residents had to raise enough cash to pay for anticipated legal fees. Since July 11, the group has raised $22,000 from donations. But the group estimates the appeal will cost twice that: $40,000. The funding campaign goes on, and organizers hope to get the rest of the cash by the end of the month, 10 days from now.

Ken Baron is a board member of the North Venice Neighborhood Alliance. NVNA is leading the fight to stop Neal. In testimony before the council, Baron laid out concerns over the project.

Ken Baron: We do not deserve to be the victims of a bait and switch. I’m an ordinary citizen, yet it is clear to me that this amendment does not meet the intent of the law on several fronts. The Venice Planning Commission has identified this, the same planning commission appointed by all of you. Ignorance of the law is not a justification for getting special consideration.

In an attempt to gain approval, the applicant is deploying smoke and mirrors to take back everything he has said prior to this hearing. This is not an amenity for the Molano PUD. If it were, it would and should have been on the binding master plan in 2017. The applicant wants this amenity as an instrument to sell homes and another development.

The residents of Molano PUD do not want this. We’re all adults. You know what, if we need something, you know, we can decide what’s best for us. Approving this amendment is just not right. It sets the stage for unnecessary and unwanted detriment to our community, and if approved will equate to a bait and switch by the developer and by the city. And that would be reprehensible.

The citizens of this community have entrusted you to see through these smoke and mirrors and to remain objective as you consider this amendment. And we urge you to deny this amendment.

Host: Another Neal adversary, Jill Pozarek.

Jill Pozarek: This is about the law. We respectfully request there’s no choice but to deny the applicant’s rezoning application.

Host: Debbie Gericke says the NVNA decided to move forward with an appeal. The appeal is known as a writ of certiorari. The appeal process may take up to one year.

Until recently, the NVNA has been splitting legal costs with the Venetian Golf and River Club Property Owners Association. But the VGRCPOA board decided in a 3-2 vote to cease providing any more legal funds. Gericke says this occurred even though 74% of a Venetian residents surveyed are against the commercial center, and despite the fact that the POA has a duty to act in the best interest of its residents.

She said the remaining opponents to the Neal project are “now at a crossroads.” Residents would like to see this issue through to which conclusion, but it cannot and will not happen without adequate legal representation. She said we need to “settle the matter in a courtroom, not a political arena.”

Debbie Gericke: It was a bait and switch with them. They signed up to come to this community, to move into a community that was a residential community. They even signed the documents showing that that was wetlands, and it wasn’t like they signed it ten years ago. Just a few months ago, it’s gonna be wetlands.

Host: So you’ve only just begun the fight?

DG: Yeah, unfortunately. But I don’t want to fight. I don’t like that. Why can’t we work it out? Why does it have to always come down to power and money? Just come down to do the right thing.

Host: This is Ramon Lopez for WSLR News.


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