A development group is planning to plunk two 29-story towers on the publicly-owned Bahia Mar complex on Fort Lauderdale Beach. In May, we reported that close to 30 people related to the development group bundled between $5,000 and $6,600 to each City Commissioner's campaign in 2014 and 2015. Also, one of only two homeowners' associations supporting the project has been run, in part, by the Bahia Mar development group's top lawyer, Barry Somerstein.
Despite the fact that most of the homeowners' groups near the project oppose the plan, the Harbor Beach Property Homeowners Association sent the City a fawning letter supporting the project on July 10. Before homeowners' groups endorse a project, they typically vote on it. Reached by phone, Somerstein confirmed that he'd sat on the board of the Harbor Beach Property Homeowners Association, but stressed that he recused himself from any vote related to the Bahia Mar, saying that it "felt like a conflict of interest."
Somerstein is also the chief counsel for the Bahia Mar development group, TRR Bahia Mar LLC. City records show that Somerstein hired lobbyist Steven A. Geller on the development group's behalf in December 2015. Somerstein also praised the development in front of of Fort Lauderdale's Planning and Zoning Board that same month — on behalf of the Harbor Beach board. It's unclear whether he mentioned that he also worked for the developers at the time.
But Somerstein insists that he never overstepped his bounds. He said he resigned from Harbor Beach's board "about a month ago," stating that he "just got tired of doing it," but that the board had not yet accepted his resignation. (He said he'd been on the board for "10 to 15 years.")
"Ever heard of the phrase, 'No good deed goes unpunished?'" he asked rhetorically, when asked why he left. "I got tired of being abused by people for no reason." He declined to be more specific.
In zoning and land-use fights, the support of local homeowners' associations is key. For example, longtime Miami Herald columnist Fred Grimm reported in 2013 that Miami's Related Group paid local homeowners' associations hundreds of thousands of dollars to support a condo development down in Miami-Dade County. Point being: Association support can make or break a project, and it seems that the Bahia Mar's developers need all the support they can get.
Although this is South Florida, an area that is basically one giant real-estate pyramid scheme, the proposed towers at the Bahia Mar complex have been controversial to an almost surreal degree. Two different public hearings have ended after eight hours of public testimony. Having sat through both of them, it seemed both meetings where overwhelmingly full of citizens who hated the project. Commissioners managed to sit stone-faced as people lobbed insults at them for a combined 16 hours. (That number doesn't even include some smaller zoning board hearings the city has held.)
In order to build the proposed towers, the project needs to be re-zoned. But despite the fact that one thousand people have signed a petition demanding the project be stopped, the commission (minus Dean Trantalis) seems set on ramming the development through to completion. The city commission will vote to formally re-zone the project on June 7.
All but two homeowners' groups situated near the Bahia Mar project have asked the commission to torpedo the project. On December 16, the homeowners at the nearby Venetian Condominium complex demanded via email that "no exceptions" be made to let skyscrapers sit along the beach. On January 24, the Harbour Inlet Home Owner's Association sent the Commission a letter asking it to "deny the developer's request for rezoning of the Bahia Mar property." The folks over at the Harbour Club called the towers "Seiler's Silos" and begged that the city "do the right thing and oppose this present plan."
Mary Fertig, president of the Idlewyld homeowners' association (and a vocal opponent of the project), told New Times that, although the City Commission is not bound to listen to any homeowners' groups, "when you see that kind of groundswell of opposition from people in the community, you have to hope that our elected officials would be responsive to the people who live here."
Harbor Beach's letter of support, however, gleams like a press release.
"For too long, members of the public have not had an opportunity to utilize the jewel that is the Bahia Mar property," association president Annette Ross wrote. "These new plans provide an active and welcome environment that the residents of Harbor beach and the City as a whole can enjoy."
Reached by phone, Ross asked if she could call New Times back, but did not respond to another call later in the day.
Somerstein said he had nothing to do with the letter. He did say, though, that he was in charge of organizing a meeting between Harbor Beach's board and the development group, though he "abstained from the discussion."
According to minutes from that December 16 Planning and Zoning Board meeting, Somerstein "concluded that the project was good for the community and the individuals who reside in the subject area" in front of the zoning board. The minutes don't say whether he disclosed his job with TRR Bahia Mar at the time, though he did mention that he was a "real estate attorney."
(Only one other homeowners' group, the Central Beach Alliance, chose to support the project.)
Somerstein, meanwhile, said his role in Harbor Beach's approval process had been "skewed" by the project's opponents.
"If I did something wrong, I should be called on the carpet for it," said Somerstein. He said he was glad we called to set the record straight.