Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

$20 Million to Culverhouse

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

$20 Million to Culverhouse

Article excerpt

LAND DEAL: Jury rules developer conspired against one-time partner


A pair of Southwest Florida's most prominent developers used backroom political deals with elected officials and conspired in secret meetings to doublecross their one-time partner on a major land deal, a Sarasota jury concluded on Monday.

The six-member jury agreed with Palmer Ranch developer Hugh Culverhouse Jr. that fellow developers Randy Benderson and Henry Rodriguez intentionally sabotaged a 2010 land deal in which the three were to turn 1,000 acres in central Sarasota County into a major economic hub.

The jury awarded Culverhouse more than $20 million in damages in a case that had dragged on for more than four years.

Culverhouse was out of town for a personal matter and unavailable for comment. His attorney, Steven Hutton, said he was not sure what ultimately decided the case but was pleased with the outcome.

Benderson attorney Steven Chase said he was "disappointed" in the decision and that he and his client would review their legal options.

But Rodriguez's attorney, Morgan Bentley, was more direct, saying, "There will be an appeal, no question."

Besides just shedding light on a business deal gone bad, the two- week trial detailed cozy relationships between developers and Sarasota County's public officials. During the trial Hutton showed email exchanges on personal computers between county officials and developers and others in which Rodriguez tried to loan former county administrator Jim Ley use of personal watercraft and helped get him tickets to Gov. Rick Scott's inauguration, though Ley said he paid for the tickets.

Hutton said Culverhouse became a victim of "backroom dealings and political influence."

'Doomed to failure'

It was a bitter conclusion to what was intially touted in early 2010 as a major "green economic development" initiative that was supposed to be a model for the state.

Sarasota County, in an "Energy Economic Zone project" delivered by the three developers, would create a mixed-used project using renewable energy and strategies to reduce greenhouse gases.

Under the deal, Rodriguez was to build 1,900 homes, Benderson as much as 250,000 square feet for potential retail and office space, and Culverhouse 1.5 million square feet of manufacturing, warehouses, retail and offices. All of it would have been between Osprey and Nokomis along State Road 681.

The project looked like a done deal in May 2010, when Benderson, Rodriguez and Culverhouse were seemingly all on the same page, publicly supporting the project.

But a month later the deal started showing cracks. During the two- week trial, jurors heard that Benderson was upset that Culverhouse could have had as much as 500,000 square feet of retail on his parcel under the deal as drafted, potentially dwarfing Benderson's retail component on his share of the project. …

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