Jupiter Island’s bumpy road grows some potholes

Hold tight: Jupiter Island’s legal entanglements just got messier

Jupiter Island’s governmental quagmire sounds all too familiar to Martin Countians: A long-standing Comprehensive Growth Management Plan that is much heralded – until a few people decide it’s not.

Two lawsuits already filed; a third and fourth likely on the shelf aimed at either a former Jupiter Island commissioner or the town commission itself – or both.

The resignation a week ago of one town commissioner under threat of a public records lawsuit, and a forensic examination of another commissioner’s electronic devices – the result of a separate lawsuit against him – revealing numerous previously undisclosed emails and text messages.

Other public records requests, subpoenas, and court orders ignored by commissioner cohorts.

Court sanctions on the horizon, and court records revealing hidden agendas uncovered by those secret emails. Additional forensic examinations of cell phones and personal computers sought in court.

Environmental issues shoved into the spotlight as an apparent ploy to attract funding, add diversity to loud voices, and delay governmental action rather than express genuine concern for the environment, according to agendas and conversations revealed by those previously closeted emails.

As if that’s not enough for the Town of Jupiter Island, apparently hellbent on repeating – or exceeding – the 2012 Martin County commission majority’s record for hijinks, there’s more.

A young attorney, Brian Richardson, introduced himself more than once during town commission meetings and public hearings as representing David and Adena Testa, but apparently was not actually. (David Testa filed the initial lawsuit in June 2021 against the town alleging improper notification of Ordinance 376 that shifted the island’s waterfront rear-yard setback line.)

Richardson was never retained by the Testas, according to a motion filed Dec. 16 in Martin County Circuit Court by the intervenors in Testa’s lawsuit against the town.

Instead, the motion alleges, Richardson is the legal counsel for Westbrook Partners, founded by another South Beach Road resident, Paul Kazilionis, to whom Richardson was allegedly feeding information gleaned from the attorney’s participation in a confidential mediation Dec. 8 among all affected parties, which violates state law if proven.

The unusual complaint that called for both Richardson and Kazilionis to be sanctioned by the court, or to show cause why they shouldn’t, was revealed in the motion filed by the South Beach Road property owners whose development applications were challenged – and ultimately approved Dec. 13 by a deadlocked town commission – in the previously undeveloped 300 block of South Beach Road.

Although zoned for residential development since 1953, the town’s regulations require a minimum buildable lot size, not previously met within the 300 block of South Beach Road until Ordinance 376 responded to the coastline changes brought by the addition of millions of cubic yards of sand.

The complaint resulted in the Dec. 17 recusal of Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Waters, who had once represented Kazilionis in an unrelated matter, according to court documents, postponing the Dec. 17 hearing on three summary judgment motions filed in the lawsuit against the town.

The recusal crushed hopes by all the affected parties involved for a quicker resolution of the case, despite inevitable appeals. Attorneys for all parties and the judge had agreed to an expedited hearing process and shortened discovery period in order to have a ruling by Jan. 31, when the town’s moratorium on building permits was due to expire, according to court documents.

The Testas had hoped the judge would rule that Ordinance 376 had been improperly noticed, which could lead to an injunction that rolls the line back to its location in 2000, established under different coastline conditions.

If so granted, the Testas also asked that the newly approved development applications for two of the 300-block properties on S. Beach Road be voided.

Jupiter Island officials had hoped for a summary judgment in their favor to uphold Ordinance 376, which had been properly researched, with coastal engineers consulted, with nine public meetings held to discuss placement of the waterfront setback line based on science, according to their motion.

The town’s attorney, John “Skip” Randolph, assured commissioners during their Dec. 13 meeting he “felt confident” residents had been properly notified.

The intervenors in the lawsuit against the town, the property owners at 310 and 322 S. Beach Road, agreed with the town that the proper notice had been made, and the Testas simply chose not to participate in any of the meetings or public hearings, according to court records.

David Testa allegedly admitted during a sworn deposition that he had received notification of the public hearings on Ordinance 376 nearly two years prior to his lawsuit, according to the intervenors’ motion for summary judgment.

The intervenors also asked that the development application approvals be upheld without additional rules or restrictions.

A new judge, Gary Sweet, was assigned to the case, and a case conference will be today, Dec. 7, to chart the court’s path forward, set new hearing dates, and perhaps issue some rulings – including as to whether the Testas’ attorneys can take new depositions of four individuals, including the mayor, sometime in January, although the deadline for depositions has passed.

But that’s not all.

The day prior to Town Commissioner Harold “Hank” Heck writing his resignation letter, he received an email from attorney Ethan Loeb, who represents the intervenors, to notify Heck of a lawsuit set to be filed at the end of five days should the commissioner choose not to comply with Loeb’s previous public records request.

In the email, Loeb recounted Heck’s alleged neglect in providing a copy of a voice message left by Paul Kazilionis, to which Heck had previously referred when the commissioner first responded to a Dec. 4 public records request.

Loeb resubmitted a second request Dec. 17 asking for the Kazilionis message, which Heck allegedly ignored. Elected officials who ignore public records requests violate state law.

Resignation or not, Heck remains obligated to comply with Loeb’s public records request.

And, yes, you guessed it – there’s more.

This recap barely scratches the surface of the town’s debates over the application or misapplication of its laws, over the definition of “public interest” and “surrounding neighborhood,” and the difference between conservation and preservation, forced by ordinance or monetarily compensable.

Navigating Jupiter Island’s bumpy road is Mayor Whitney Pidot, who said more than once over the past few months, “I understand the passion … I am passionate about this place, too … it comes from the fact we all passionately love this island.”

A highly respected attorney and himself a 300-block South Beach Road homeowner, Pidot also makes it clear from his position on the dais, despite his admitted enjoyment of the unfettered 300-block beach, that the town commission’s primary job is to uphold the law, including the ones of their own making in seeking a proper balance between private property rights and municipal power.

Pidot is the primary element that sets Jupiter Island’s commission quagmire apart from any other, especially the previous one in Martin County. He must now, however, lead the commission in finding an unbiased replacement for Heck. The key word here is “unbiased.”

— Barbara Clowdus, Publisher
Martin County Currents