Robert Lincoln looks more like a cuddly teddy bear than a cunning terminator.
Nonetheless, Lincoln, in some quarters, holds the distinction of being the lead attorney behind an effort to kill one of the Gulf Coast’s largest potential construction projects.
Even more confounding: Lincoln, an affable, worldly chap, who spent his junior-high school years on a sailboat in the Virgin Islands, usually represents developers in contentious planning-and-zoning issues. He is currently fighting against Hometown Democracy-style initiatives in St. Petersburg, for example, and he is on the case for a concrete company suing the government over land issues in Lee County.
Indeed, Lincoln, 50, is the guy developers want to hire when they go before a county zoning commission or a town planning board.
“We call him our ‘in-house land use law encyclopedia,’” says Bill Merrill, a partner at Icard Merrill, the prominent Sarasota-based law firm for which Lincoln works. “He’s a great resource to have on your side of
Unless, of course, that table is made up of the owners and officials behind the Longboat Key Club and Resort. Club officials, including the owners, New York-based real-estate firm Loeb Partners Realty, proposed a $500 million redevelopment project for the property in April 2008.
The project, which has since been scaled back to an estimated $400 million, now holds the potential for a totally revamped property, including a 196-room five-star hotel; a new meeting center; two new condo buildings totaling more than 60 units; and a new golf course and clubhouse. The Longboat Key Town
Commission has held dozens of hearings and meetings on the issue for the past six months and a decision on the project could be made by June.
But approval or denial delay hasn’t diminished the project’s significance, considering construction projects worth anything close to $400 million are pretty rare these days on the Gulf Coast. On Longboat Key, it’s even more rare.
In fact, statewide economist Hank Fishkind echoed the beliefs of many in the business community when he told the commission in January that the project is akin to life-and-death for the Key.
Said Fishkind: “Without the support of the town, this program cannot go forward and the resort will deteriorate, along with the island and its real-estate values.”
Lincoln, however, in representing the project’s opponents, the Islandside Property Owners Coalition, says statements like that are overblown and misguided. Lincoln argues the project itself, no matter how good it might or might not be for the Key or the resort, is based on a false reading of the town’s planning-and-zoning codes and its comprehensive plan.
“The idea that we should roll over on everyone else’s rights just because economic development is in use here defies principle,” says Lincoln. “When it comes to land planning, I’m a process hawk.”
Furthermore, Lincoln says the project might not be worth what its backers say it is.
“They’ve done a masterful job of putting this project in (the $400 million) light,” says Lincoln. “But when you actually look at the project, it might not be worth that much.”
Still, even Lincoln gets the irony. It’s not often, he admits, that he comes down against developers.
“Most of the time, I’m in the role of telling people their comprehensive plans are too vague to be enforced,” says Lincoln. “But this is the flip side.”
Even more ironic: Lincoln, both personally and in other cases, opposes Amendment 4, the ballot initiative also known as Hometown Democracy that, if passed by statewide voters in November, could cause mayhem in even the simplest development proposal. The initiative would allow voters to approve all changes to local comprehensive land-use plans, complicated votes that are currently handled by city and county commissioners.
“Having zoning and planning debates decided at the ballot box is hugely problematic,” says Lincoln. “I call it ‘Hometown Demagoguery’ because the precepts behind it are fundamentally false. If it passes, it will further polarize growth.”
The potential damage Hometown Democracy can bring is on full display in the city of St. Pete Beach, where regulations similar to the process behind Amendment 4 were passed a few years ago. The battle now looms in pending court cases, where Lincoln represents Save Our Little Village, a nonprofit group fighting Hometown Democracy-like rules.
“This has never been about the right to vote,” says Deborah Nicklaus, a SOLV official whose family operates a hotel on the beach. “It has always been about these people wanting to stop all growth.”
Lincoln has argued those same points for SOLV, both in court and in many hearings.
Yet at least one member of the Islandside Property Owners Coalition cited Hometown Democracy as a good tool to stop developments. In a recent e-mail to some Longboat residents, coalition Chairman Bob
White wrote that the ballot initiative is a “response to the tendency of local governments to allow overdevelopment within their communities and inappropriate changes to codes to accommodate developers.”
Lincoln, despite that discrepancy, remains steadfast in his goal of forcing the resort and the town to abide by the code and comprehensive plan.
“The answer for this,” says Lincoln, “is for Longboat Key to have a better comprehensive plan.”
Perfecting the juggle between clients, opponents and his view of the law is a Lincoln staple.
Lincoln was born in New Jersey and grew up in several towns across the Northeast. His mom, a nurse, and his stepfather, an Episcopal minister, wanted him to grow up in a live-and-learn environment.
One such experience: When Lincoln was 12, the family moved to the Virgin Islands, where they lived on a sailboat for a few years while the elder Lincoln taught at a local school.
Lincoln would later move back to the States and, specifically, to Sarasota, where he went to New College.
He hit the sailing circuit again after college, when he worked on various small boats and large yachts docked in the Caribbean.
Then, when he was 26, Lincoln had the experience — and terror — of a lifetime. He was out on a boat during choppy waters when something got caught in the top of the 95-foot-high mast. Despite a lifelong fear of heights, Lincoln, the captain of the ship, climbed to the top to free the mast.
“It was an experience that taught me it didn’t matter if I was afraid of something,” says Lincoln. “I learned that you have to do what you have to do to get something done sometimes.”
Lincoln eventually returned to Sarasota, where he worked in a variety of jobs in resorts and other places around town. The list includes the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort, where he earned $7 an hour as an overnight clerk and auditor.
Lincoln earned his law degree in 1994 from Florida State. But before practicing law, he turned to teaching.
He worked for FSU, and, for a brief time, he taught urban planning at Michigan State University.
But the call of warm weather brought Lincoln back to Sarasota.
Lincoln continued on his journey of working various jobs after returning to the Gulf Coast. At one stop, he worked in the Sarasota County Planning Department, in its Geographic Information System (GIS) software unit.
Lincoln also worked for some startup technology firms around the region. One of those jobs was with Copytalk, a Sarasota-based company that combines voice and data technology in order to use the telephone to write e-mails.
“I was useful in the startup phase,” says Lincoln. “I had an appreciation for when and how technology could be used.”
But long-term sales and marketing wasn’t his forte. So, Lincoln refocused on the law and was hired by Icard Merrill in 2003. He quickly rose to the top of the firm’s land use litigation department.
His cases at Icard Merrill have been diverse, both topically and geographically.
In Lee County, for example, Lincoln represents Schwab Industries, a national cement company with a large facility in the county. Schwab, which recently filed for bankruptcy, has been entangled in a lawsuit with the county since 2006, when commissioners denied the company’s proposal to drill for limestone on 630 acres it owns in Estero.
Lincoln and Schwab are suing the county for at least $18 million under the Bert J. Harris Private Property Rights Protection Act. The act allows property owners to seek financial relief if a court rules their land has lost value due to government regulation or action.
“Despite a history of not denying mines,” says Lincoln, “Lee County decided to deny this one (project) due to local opposition.”
To Build or Deny
The cloudy future of one of the largest potential development projects on the Gulf Coast, the renovation and expansion of the Longboat Key Club and Resort, will likely clear up before the summer.
In the past six months, the dispute has shifted from the size and scope of the project to what can or can’t be done under Longboat Key’s zoning code. In an effort to solve that problem, in early March the Longboat
Key Town Commission asked its Planning and Zoning Board to review the disputed portions of the code.
That review and analysis could be completed by May. From there, the options should become clear.
Option one: Commissioners will approve the proposal brought by the Longboat Key Club and Resort to renovate and expand a major portion of the property. Construction on the project, which is estimated to be up to $400 million and includes a five-star, 196-room hotel, could then begin by the end of the year.
Option two: The commission will either turn down the project outright or it will continue on with hearings and meetings. The latter might be the equivalent of a denial, says the resort’s general manager, Michael Welly, because he won’t wait forever. At some point, he and his partners would just scrap the project.
But Welly, despite his frustration with the delays, maintains a modicum of optimism.
Says Welly: “In my heart, when we build this, I know people are going to come up to me and say, ‘You were right, this place is magnificent.’”
Contact Mark Gordon at [email protected].