Part 4: Jupiter Island on a Bumpy Road
Caught Between the Proverbial Rock and a Hard Place
Dire consequences loom for the Town of Jupiter Island, regardless of the town commission’s decisions on Monday, Dec. 13.
The argument over one block of South Beach Road with a scenic view of the ocean are poised to file additional lawsuits against the town if they don’t like Monday’s outcome.
A court-ordered mediation on Wednesday failed, assuring more litigation is likely
At 9 a.m. Monday, Dec. 13, town commissioners must sit as judges to hear testimony in support of upholding, or overturning, the town’s Impact Review Committee’s decisions to allow construction of two beach houses on two of the last previously undeveloped tracts of land in the 300 block of South Beach Road.
The first 300-block development application filed in January 2021, was first approved by the IRC, then overturned by the town commission on an appeal by David and Adena Testa, then overturned yet again by the commission in September, reversing their denial.
The Testas appealed that decision, as well as the IRC’s approval August 5 for construction of a beach house at 322 S. Beach Road.
Both development applications, plus another that has not yet been submitted to the IRC, were predicated on the May 2019 decision by the town to revise the waterfront setback line, which added a total of nine-tenths of an acre of square footage to the 300-block parcels.
David Testa filed a lawsuit in circuit court June 2 against the town contesting the notification process for the new land development regulations for Ordinance 376, which added sufficient square footage to the ocean side of the 300-block parcels to become buildable.
The town had not revised the waterfront setback line in 21 years, despite the exceptional success of Martin County’s and Jupiter Island’s joint beach restoration program. The width of the beach has grown by more than 180′ over the past decade and improved the height of its sand dunes, according to a study of the beach contracted by the town in 2018, and reconfirmed this summer.
The commission’s decision Monday whether to allow or deny construction in the 300 block, however, is not the only important decision to be made next week.
Testa Lawsuit Against Town Gets First Test
A Martin County Circuit Court judge will hear arguments for three summary judgments by all the parties in Testa’s lawsuit against the town on Friday, Dec. 17. First though, Judge Jennifer Waters will decide a smattering of other petitions, including one to strike a recent declaration made by Adena Testa.
She countered a statement her husband David made during an October deposition, admitting he’d probably seen an issue of “The Village News” article about Ordinance 376. He said he knew of the town’s intent as early as March 2019 to revise its waterfront setback line, two months prior to the final reading, according to the deposition transcript.
The admission undermines his assertion that he had not been informed of the public hearing, thus was denied an opportunity to comment.
Adena Testa denied that “The Village News,” a town newsletter emailed to every resident, had ever been in their house at any time prior to 2021, and that David’s testimony “is inaccurate and unreliable.”
David changed his testimony to agree with his wife that he’d conflated his memory in 2021 when there was a copy of the newsletter in their house with 2019 when there was not.
The Testas’ argue in their lawsuit that one published notification is insufficient considering the nature and scope of the changes made. Besides, they do not subscribe to The Stuart News, where the official notice was published.
They also allege that nine public meetings, including two public hearings, were insufficient because not enough attention was given to the agenda emailed to them in advance of the meetings, thus they attended none.
Neither did they read the Village News, the town newsletter emailed to them each month, because Ordinance 376 was listed under the Building Department report; besides, just because a link to a newsletter is sent to an email address, and the town can show every date and time each email is opened, even multiple times at the same address, doesn’t mean the newsletter is actually read, according to the court record.
No one reported that the 300 block parcels on the ocean would be buildable, Testa added, although maps showing the new location lines were provided.
“You all didn’t know what you didn’t know,” Mrs. Testa told commissioners Nov. 16, “… and you need to admit your mistake and void Ordinance 376.”
Hypocrisy and Sunshine Act Violations Abound
Commissioner Michael Brooks abstained from taking part in the last town commission meeting Nov. 16. A state law prohibits commissioners from abstaining from discussion or voting on issues that come before a governing body, except in cases of declared conflict of interest.
However, Brooks’ attorney Michael Durham explained later in the Nov. 16 meeting that Brooks’ abstention was “an overabundance of caution in (Brooks’) desire to be completely fair and transparent,” which Durham said is allowed under an amendment to the state’s Sunshine Law.
Brooks told commissioners prior to leaving the dais that he anticipated the commission would be discussing the appeals of the 300-block development applications and the Zoning in Progress moratorium on new construction implemented in March as the commission studied possible changes in zoning for the 300-block, as well as possible repeal of Ordinance 376.
In his explanation to the board, Brooks added: “In my eight months on the commission, I’ve tried to approach every issue with an open mind and the ability to vote objectively and dispassionately. The record speaks for itself.,,”
The court record, however, includes numerous emails uncovered through attorney Ethan Loeb’s public records requests on behalf of intervenors that reflect a different side of Brooks’ record.
He failed to turn over his email correspondence with Impact Review Committee members – who also did not file copies of their correspondence with Brooks as required by the state’s public records laws – about the 300-block development and the waterfront setback line revisions, according to court records.
One lawsuit alleging violations of Florida’s Sunshine Act and public records law has already been filed against Brooks personally; however, the alleged lack of disclosure of correspondence regarding an issue before the IRC, as well as Brooks’ emails to town commissioners, opens the door to a second lawsuit against the town itself for violating state public records laws.
In one email that Brooks blind-copied to commissioners, he went so far as to feign transparency by asking Town Manager Michael Ventura to provide a copy of his email to each town commissioner – although he had already blind-copied the same email to each of them.
Brooks’ obvious bias regarding the issues the town faces revealed itself again in previously undisclosed emails when he expressed his desire to “cause headaches” for the 300-block landowners, and by explaining to another email recipient prior to his election that he needed to “take a lower profile” in the controversy to avoid possibly invalidating his input into public discussions.
Brooks was not alone in his rancor toward the new landowners, however, and toward the town’s revision of the waterfront setback line.
The IRC chairwoman at the time, Joyce Bullen Gay, also emailed Adena Testa saying she will “go down fighting” the 300-block applications, according to court records, although she is required to enter impact review discussions that are quasi-judicial with an open mind and to disclose all correspondence about applications under review. Correspondence includes phone calls, texts, and all emails.
She resigned as IRC chairwoman after the IRC members approved construction in the 300-block.
Perhaps the emails that reveal the true issues behind the lawsuit against the town and the source of objections to 300-block development applications have been published in the court record.
Loeb highlighted them in his presentation during the Nov. 16 commission meeting.
Emails between Bullen Gay and Adena Testa asked about the source of the applicant’s wealth, and if the 300-block applicants were too “glitzy” to be “club material.”
The connection to the Jupiter Island Club was even more clearly stated in an email Oct. 8 between Anne Geddes and Hank Heck, both residents of the 300-block and founding members of the Jupiter Island Forever environmental group led by Adena Testa.
Geddes says: “My biggest worry is the over building on this island, and the town has to come to the realization that in the not too distant future, club members may lose control of the commission and impact review (committee). The influx of money and people who could care less about the history of this island is having its effect already.” (Edited for clarity and readability.)
A Challenge to the ‘Old Guard’?
When the late Joseph V. and Permelia Reed, heirs to a mining and oil fortune, bought most of Jupiter Island in the early ’30s, they intended to create a haven for the very wealthy who sought privacy and serenity above the glitz and glamour of Palm Beach, according to numerous published accounts.
They accomplished this by tightly controlling who lived on the island.
Home buyers were required to reveal their source of wealth and needed to earn unanimous approval by the Jupiter Island Club board, controlled by the Reeds. One vote could blackball the approval.
Home sellers could list their property with only one real estate firm, Jupiter Island and Hobe Sound Properties, Inc., and of course, it could be sold only to island residents.
The Reed family sold their 60 percent interest in Jupiter Island Club in the late ’80s, but the club’s interests remained tightly aligned with those of residents into the 1990s, even after club finances pushed the board to begin accepting members who did not live on the island, according to one insider.
The traditionally tight control over island residents, however, began to slip, as Geddes’ email confirms.
Evidence of the Jupiter Island Club’s influence remains strong, even today. Every town commissioner is a club member; Adena Testa is the club’s vice president; and all the founding members of Jupiter Island Forever are club members.
In that light, Geddes’ warning reveals the source of genuine concern among 300-block residents, except one, John Taylor, III. In his Dec. 8 email to commissioners, Taylor said he’s lived on that block for 30 years. He does not object to construction of the beach cottages, although his property is the only one with an unobstructed view of the ocean, he adds.
Eleven landowners had requested variances to their rear yard setback in 2018 when the commission decided it was time to revise the entire waterfront setback line. Taylor pointed out that 14 properties previously contained non-conforming structures prior to passage of Ordinance 376.
Should the ordinance be declared void, Taylor added, it’s entirely conceivable that those landowners would file lawsuits against the town to protect their property rights.
Evidence Undermines Protests Over Environment
Although much angst was generated by the Jupiter Island Forever founders and their environmental expert, none of their private emails to protest development of the 300 block ever once mentioned the environment.
It’s reminiscent of environmentalist Maggy Hurchalla’s revealing email to a Martin County commissioner in the Lake Point public records case in 2013 that said “Forget the environment. Just cancel the contract.”
Even after Adena Testa’s unflattering emails were revealed to the town commissioners and the public at their Nov. 16 meeting, she was unfazed in her comments to the town commission, declaring that development in the 300 block “ … is an existential evisceration of the town’s legacy of environmental preservation …” and accused the commissioners of potentially “giving away a pristine piece of land…”.
Mayor Whitney Pidot reminded her that it’s not the town’s to give away. Even Nathaniel Reed, with the help of several Jupiter Island Club members, raised $8 million to buy the 45 acres that went so famously into conservation.
Buying the land in the 300 block now would require that the expenses incurred by the Ronert, Humphrey, and Feldstine families be reimbursed on top of the price of the land, including their now-sizeable attorney fees.
No one has proposed that possibility, particularly since the base price of just one of the affected parcels was $22 million.
Taylor admitted in his email that he is not a member of the Jupiter Island Club, but “I love this Island and do not want to see it destroyed over a handful of beach cottages. To me, the choice is clear – permit these few beach cottages to proceed. Do not interfere with their vested property rights.”
A prudent solution, indeed.
— By Barbara Clowdus, Publisher
Martin County Currents