by Naja Girard…….
Just as we were wondering whether Pritam Singh’s soon to open “175-room Hotel” on Stock Island was legal, The Blue Paper received an interesting tip. Pritam Singh is suing 7 of his neighbors for alleged unlawful vacation rental use of their condos at Oceanside Marina. He wants them to rent long-term. The $100 million question is whether there is in fact any difference between those old condos (2003) and the new ones recently built by Mr. Singh at that very same marina. They look like the same “attached units” with shared walkways and shared elevators. Some are now questioning whether Mr. Singh’s legal argument against his neighbors could be turned around so that he too might be required to rent long-term.
Since its creation in 1996, “Oceanside Marina” has been shared amongst over one hundred small property owners. Some owned one of the 22 residential condo units facing the ocean. Others had bought one or two of the 96 boat slips or they owned a rack for their boat in one of the dry storage boat barns. And many of the owners of the residential condo units paid their mortgages by renting to tourists by the week.
Enter Pritam Singh.
In June of 2013 he buys the marina upland for $4.75 million. Before long he begins to buy out the individual property owners. Per property appraiser records he [or his direct affiliates] now own 27 of the 52 dry storage racks, 22 of the 96 wet slips and 7 of the 22 residential condos. He succeeds in assuming control of the dockominium association [the wet slips] and the dry storage condo association, but the members of the residential condominium association block him from becoming a member of their board.
Singh moves into one of the residential condos he’d purchased and begins complaining about his neighbors’ vacation rental business. On December 1, 2015, Barton Smith, Mr. Singh’s attorney, obtains an official reversal of the County’s position on the legality of vacation rentals at Oceanside Marina.
Initially, the County had found that condos at Oceanside could be used for vacation rentals. In an April 18, 2007 County Planning Board resolution (P21-07), Aref Joulani, Senior Director of Planning and Environmental Resources, wrote, “Vacation Rental Use is allowed [at Oceanside] because it is not specifically prohibited.”
In an August 9, 2013 email, Mayte Santamaria, the current Senior Director of Planning and Environmental Resources, confirmed that vacation rental use was lawful for the “22 market-rate units” [at Oceanside] “Yes, can use the market-rate units as vacation rentals in MU zoning district.”
But, after the request came from Pritam Singh’s attorney, Ms. Santamaria did a 180:
“As the MU zoning district does not provide for vacation rental use of attached dwellings units,” wrote Ms. Santamaria, “the vacation rental use of the subject property is not permitted,”
Armed with that “Letter of Understanding,” Pritam Singh began suing his neighbors.
The first hearing involved such matters as how much noise the tourists make in the swimming pool and how afraid Mr. Singh and his wife are of them. To present such complex legal issues Mr. Singh had hired, not just one, but two prominent local attorneys: Barton Smith and Michael Halpern. Before the case could proceed the Judge felt he should first disclose that Mr. Smith’s family had been very generous to his election campaign fund.
He would ultimately grant Mr. Singh’s request for an emergency injunction, ordering his neighbors to cease renting their condo on a short-term basis and acknowledging that Mr. Singh had a good chance of prevailing in the case, based on the Planning Director’s new interpretation of the code.
After the hearing, we ended up standing beside Ms. Santamaria and an assistant county attorney in the courthouse elevator.
BP to Ms. Santamaria: Aren’t you concerned that you look like you changed your mind about those people’s rights?
County Lawyer to Ms. Santamaria: Don’t answer!
BP: But aren’t you concerned that people are going to think those condos are exactly the same as Pritam Singh’s condos? Why does he have the right to do vacation rentals but not them?
Lawyer: Don’t answer. Don’t answer.
(You gotta love how slow those courthouse elevators are.)
BP: But doesn’t it look….
Lawyer: Don’t answer. Don’t answer. Don’t answer.
The door finally opens. They almost run away.
Since then Pritam Singh has added 6 more Defendants in his “condominium war.”
Most of the individual owners [of each type of Oceanside condo] we talked to are afraid to speak on the record, convinced retaliation could result.
So, if the county and the courts are convinced vacation rentals are prohibited in those older “attached units” at Oceanside why doesn’t the law also apply to Mr. Singh’s new “attached” vacation rental complex?
According to Ms. Santamaria it is the fact that Mr. Singh’s development agreement specifically allows vacation rentals that justifies the apparent disparity. The County Commission did approve the agreement that specified all 175 units could be rented on a transient basis, even though Mr. Singh only had 17 actual “hotel unit” permits.
So, can a development agreement be contrary to the law?
Well, during another of Pritam Singh’s development agreement debates, before the City of Key West this time, local attorney Bob Goldman argued that the proposed plan for the old Jabour Trailer Park was contrary to law. He claimed he had air-tight legal precedent that said a development agreement could under no circumstances violate the law.
We are told that when deciding whether to approve a development agreement the county commission sits in a “quasi-judicial” capacity – not a legislative capacity. While sitting in that “judicial” capacity, the county commission must make a finding that the development agreement is not contrary to the County’s Comprehensive Plan or Code of Ordinances. [See Florida Statute 163.3231]
But, if we are to believe Ms. Santamaria’s newest determination is the correct one, then doesn’t Mr. Singh’s Oceanside Marina development agreement violate the prohibition on vacation rental activity in “attached units in the MU zoning district?”
So why does Mr. Singh push the issue through the courts, apparently unconcerned by what seems like an effort to shoot himself in the foot? The question is even more puzzling considering that through the remarkable industry of his attorneys, Mr. Singh has now brought to light that under section 134-1(k)(7) of the county code “any citizen of the county” can sue to prevent a violation of the vacation rental codes and may even be able to recoup his or her costs and attorney fees!
Does that mean that “any citizen of the county” could sue Mr. Singh’s development company regarding the 158 “vacation rentals” they are currently booking at Ocean’s Edge Hotel and Resort?
See Related: Oceanside Marina: Bait & Switch