Commission Hires Outside Lawyer
Winter Haven Commission Prepares for Landings Legal Fight
Officials wants to be ready if mediation talks don't produce a new agreement.
Published: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 at 12:31 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 at 12:31 a.m.
WINTER HAVEN | Winter Haven commissioners began readying the city for a legal battle with The Landings on Monday in case current mediation talks don't produce a new agreement.
Commissioners unanimously agreed to hire a lawyer with GrayRobinson, P.A., to represent the city in any future litigation with The Landings, a mixed-use development.
The litigation would be the result of a termination letter sent by commissioners to The Landings in January, giving the controversial develop-ment 30 days to leave the property. Since then, how-ever, commissioners have extended the deadline for new mediation talks.
City Attorney John Murphy asked commissioners to hire one of two recommended lawyers during his staff report.
"I think it would be prudent for the City Commission to authorize outside litigation consult to be engaged," Murphy told commissioners Monday morning.
"So that we are not caught having to play catch-up when and if, for whatever reason, we can't reach an agreement, that I would imagine litigation would ensue. And in order to protect the public's interest, we need to be prepared to do so."
Commissioner Pete Chichetto, the commission liaison with The Landings, made the motion to hire GrayRobinson lawyer Mark Miller. The motion was not on Monday's agenda, just as motions concerning The Landings in the two most recent commission meetings were not on the agenda.
Murphy also asked commissioners whether they wanted to end the mediation talks. Commissioners declined to take a vote to change their position.
Commissioners had questions about the new mediation talks, which Murphy has maintained are confidential.
Commissioner Steven Hunnicutt said it is still not clear to him what is going on, and he worries no resolution can be reached.
"To be quite honest with you, given that it's a confidential proceeding, I can't disclose the specifics of it, but you very well may be right,'' Murphy told Hunnicutt.
"There very well may not be a resolution to this issue that will make the developer happy or that will satisfy the city," Murphy said. "Time will tell on that."
Murphy said he felt the talks are worth pursuing to avoid litigation.
"If you don't try, you don't know, and it was at (The Landings) request," Murphy said. "It just seemed, from a business perspective, appropriate to acquiesce to the request. If the commission doesn't wish to do that, let me know, and I can make it stop."
Murphy reaffirmed that the commission's termination remains, as Commissioner Nat Birdsong put it, "the law of the land."
"I think we need to stay the course and remain resolute in our positions," Murphy said. "Having this mediation doesn't mean we are not."
The Landings is a proposed mixed-use development that would take over the city-owned Chain of Lakes Complex. If built out completely, it would contain a hotel, apartment complex, movie theater and lakeside restaurants.
The first phase, built on the land where the Orange Dome once stood, was developed into a Chick-fil-a, Starbucks and Panera Bread.
The mediation talks between the city and the developers began after the Feb. 11 commission meeting, where commissioners backed off on a threat to evict The Landings. City officials hoped to avoid litigation.
The city had sent a letter to The Landings financier Taylor Pursell two weeks earlier, giving him 30 days to vacate the property. City officials said he had not lived up to their agreement.
Pursell has said he disputes the city's statement.
The move opened up the possibility the mixed-use development could still take over the city-owned Chain of Lakes Complex if talks can produce a new agreement by the March 25 deadline the commission set.
Pursell, who was not at the commission meeting Monday, said he understands the commission's decision to hire a lawyer.
"The city is doing what they should and exploring their options, and we have certainly done the same," Pursell said. "But we are still hopeful of a good resolution for both sides soon."
Monday's commission meeting was held at 9 a.m. instead of the normal 7:30 p.m. because three commissioners and City Manager Deric Feacher left Monday evening for Washington, D.C., to speak with lawmakers.
[ Ryan E. Little can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-401- 6962. Follow him on Twitter @Ledger Ryan. ]
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