How the Pahokee Marina project sunk into a new limbo: Commissioners ignored pleas of state, chosen operating firm ERH

PAHOKEE — The city commissioners of Pahokee voted at their most recent regular meeting, on June 23, by a 4-1 margin to abandon their previous, seemingly earnest efforts to carry through with Everglades Reserve Holdings LLC’s sublease on the Lake Okeechobee marina, campground and restaurant.

The firm run by two main investors, Robert A. Miller Sr. and Robert Lambert, was selected nearly three years ago by this same city commission lineup, except for Commissioner Regina Bohlen, who was elected the following spring to replace the retiring Diane Lewis. In the second half of 2017, the Pahokee City Commission entered into negotiations with ERH and came to an agreement that October to sublease the property and open all three components. After being approved in November 2017, affirmed at least once in 2018 and then approved by the city commission for transmittal to the state Department of Environmental Protection and Division of State Lands last autumn, the sublease package had to be submitted to the Florida Internal Improvement Trust Fund (IITF) Board of Trustees — which is Gov. Ron DeSantis and the three state cabinet officers. It received approval from the board on Dec. 3, 2019 — 8 1/2 months ago.

It has come to light since that, via an exchange of emails with City Manager Chandler Williamson, both the state official who has been handling the Pahokee marina sublease negotiations and package at the state level — Brad Richardson, chief of the Bureau of Public Land Administration of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of State Lands — and ERH’s attorney Christopher Hale of Fort Lauderdale, on behalf of his clients, ugrged the manager and Pahokee commission two days prior to the June 23 meeting to delay any vote on the revisions to the sublease. The manager and commission ignored those requests and went ahead and conducted a vote, resulting in Pahokee’s reversal of three years’ worth of work.

After an exchange of emails on Sunday, June 21 — to which the city’s commissioners apparently were not privy until it was forwarded by ERH’s attorney to them all — Richardson advised Williamson, “While the city may be ‘OK’ with the sublease draft, I received ERH’s comments late Friday afternoon (June 19).” He also sent their edits “that include my comments” in the attached draft.

Richardson added, pointedly, that although the IITF board unanimously approved the ERH LLC sublease as previously negotiated last December, “Please keep in mind that the state’s counsel has not reviewed these proposed revisions — some of which, the city would ultimately have to agree to without DEP involvement. Other portions could potentially change upon review by DEP counsel.”
He continued: “As I understand it, the city is planning to ‘vote’ on the sublease draft or the provisions therein, on Tuesday (June 23). I urge you to delay this decision until all three parties have agreed to a final form. However, I do understand that the council is anxious to finalize a decision. In lieu of voting on the form itself, may I suggest that the items can be openly discussed and voted on instead (i.e. deposit amount, which I understand is one of the items in question). In theory, if it’s conceptually approved, you, your attorney, ERH and their attorney, as well as the state can finalize the language within the document. Again, the council has already approved the concept of subleasing the property. It’s essentially the form and all the conditions that need to be finalized.”
Two weeks prior to the email exchanges before that last regular meeting, Richardson had sent an email to City Manager Williamson, ERH partner Lambert, ERH’s attorney Hale and the city attorney attempting to clarify what the state’s position would be on any changes to the ERH sublease at that point.

He made several points in that missive:

“1. I’m not sure which draft of the sublease was provided to the council, but it is not in its final draft form. The last draft sent to the city, on Feb. 10, had some remaining questions and suggested revisions.

“2. The state has not received, in writing, ERH’s thoughts/comments/revisions of the proposed language within the sublease. It has been discussed verbally a couple of times, to date.” (The partners’ response was sent after this communication.)

“3. Conference Area: I’ve received some rumblings regarding the area defined as the Conference Room/Area and excluding from the sublease or the city having exclusive rights to use. There are a couple of conditions related to such within the draft. While the area cannot be excluded from ERH’s use, the conditions could clarify when the city could use the area, such as holidays. Prior written notice is preferred so that both parties can concur on dates/times of use.

Richardson then expressed hope in the June 11 email that all parties could agree to a final draft before the June 23 meeting.
“On behalf of DEP and the (IITF) Board of Trustees, I request that we all work toward an amenable resolution to the proposed sublease form, so that it may be ready for any future council meeting and/or vote.”

Then Hale forwarded the entire email exchange to all the commissioners and added, “I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Richardson; endorse DEP’s position as stated below and request that the vote be postponed until we have agreed upon a final form. Further, ERH asks for access to the premises, as soon as possible, to allow inspections by insurance investigators, estimators, engineers and contractors to commence the inspection of the premises.”

Those inspection requests had been ignored by Willliamson for months after the December 2019 approval by the IITF Board of Trustees, and additionally the ERH partners have stated they were not even provided a copy of the city’s new sublease draft until months after it’d been thought to have been finalized on Feb. 23, 2020. Williamson said he did provide it to them on Feb. 23.

The Pahokee City Commission disregarded the state’s and ERH’s pleas in its 4-1 vote June 23, which has placed this redevelopment project — on which $2.3 million in state taxpayers’ money already has been spent, supposedly — in a new limbo.

The commissioners are scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday, July 28. Their last scheduled meeting, set for July 14, was canceled by the city manager.

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