- December 7, 2017
Lottie Andrew Varano was looking for a way to show how big of an issue the construction of Echelon on Palm had become in his life, so he brought the city readings of his blood pressure.
When he looked at the crane — which occasionally swings over his residence at the 12-story Essex House — the readings were higher. This shows just how drastic an impact the project was having, he said — a quantifiable measure of the construction’s effects.
After unsuccessful efforts to get the city to intervene, the Essex House Condominium Association has moved on in hopes that a judge will rule in their favor. On May 16, the residents filed suit against Echelon’s developer, Naples-based The Ronto Group, as well as BCBE Construction LLC and WSR-Sarasota LLC.
In the suit, the residents make three allegations. First, that construction on the Echelon on Palm has removed land from the Essex House property. Second, that the presence of a construction crane above the Essex House property creates an inherent danger. Third, that contractors on the Echelon project have repeatedly trespassed on Essex House property.
“It’s money over everything,” Varano said. “They just bulldoze their way through, they don’t give two (*****) about what we’re saying.”
A Ronto Group representative and Echelon land-use attorney Brenda Patten did not immediately return phone calls from the Sarasota Observer for comment by press time.
Varano said the construction crew excavated beyond the Echelon property line, creating a hole on Essex House land. When residents tried to install a fence to prevent the intrusion, the land was not stable enough to support the structure, Varano said.
“This is a private property rights dispute between two adjoining landowners.” — Michael Connelly, deputy city attorney
The lawsuit alleges “an excavation claw ripping out land and foliage has resulted in multiple trees belonging to plaintiff falling, being ripped out of the ground or dying as a result of the excavations.”
The developer of Echelon’s had not filed a response to the lawsuit as of press time.
On the Palm Avenue side of Essex House, the association has erected three canvas billboards with slogans that read: “How many trees must we lose in the name of progress?” and “City of Sarasota profits more sacred than homeowners rights and safety.”
Some residents have said they believe the crane is a safety issue.
On May 2, resident Jay Leon sent an email to City Commissioner Susan Chapman regarding the construction.
“My mother-in-law’s final years will be degraded by the constant noise and the fear of a crane malfunction,” Leon wrote.
Charlotte Perret is a part-time resident for more than a decade who settled in permanently three years ago. Although she doesn’t overlook the construction site, she said the crane’s presence makes her uncomfortable.
“When it’s windy, it can be really, really scary,” Perret said. “And it’s almost hurricane season.”
In an email to city staff, Deputy City Attorney Michael Connolly explained that the city had no authority to intervene against the Echelon development on behalf of Essex House residents.
He said there’s no city ordinance that requires a developer to obtain the right to use the air above another property and that the other issues did not fall under the city’s purview.
“This is a private property rights dispute between two adjoining landowners, which can only be resolved by the two adjoining land owners or by litigation in a court of law,” Connelly wrote in a May 18 email.
“That’s a really peculiar definition of a neighbor: a construction company and the residents of a building,” Perret said. “Really weird.”
Chapman has frequently said the city is too lenient in granting approval to new developments. Although staff members say they are bound by the zoning regulations, Chapman has suggested the city has the leeway to strike down projects that aren’t deemed to be appropriate for their surroundings. In her response to Leon, Chapman expressed her displeasure with the development review process.
“I have long opposed administrative site plan approval — for years before my election,” Chapman wrote. “It is a travesty! Staff who lives outside the city gets to decide what development occurs in the downtown.”
The 18-story, 17-unit Echelon project broke ground at 624 S. Palm Ave. earlier this year. Units start at $2.2 million and top out at $4.25 million; completion is scheduled for summer 2017. The Essex House, built in 1974, is located at 707 S. Gulfstream Ave.
The Echelon project was subject to some controversy before it even began. Three residents — including one Essex House owner — contested the demolition of the previous property at 624 S. Palm Ave., which had a historic designation. The City Commission voted unanimously to permit the demolition in October 2014.
No hearing has been set in the lawsuit against the Echelon developers. The suit asks the project team to end its excavation at the property line, fill in the land already removed and install fencing to prevent further issues. It also asks the court to prevent the continued use of the crane above the Essex House property.
“Nobody likes to (sue). It’s going to cost us money and them money,” Varano said. “But when you keep having this happen every day, what other avenues are open to you?”