By Dan Moffett
Two recent mediation sessions have done little to resolve lawsuits filed by developer William Swaim against the town of Ocean Ridge and Wellington Arms condominium owners.
For the last three years, Swaim has been trying to persuade the town to grant him an easement behind Town Hall so he can develop property in the Ocean Ridge lagoon.
Wellington Arms residents have vigorously fought the idea, asserting that the mangrove-rich lagoon is environmentally protected and should never be filled in for development.
Attorneys for Swaim’s Waterfront ICW Properties have countered that the lagoon deserves no protection because it is not a natural body of water but rather a man-made ditch carved out decades ago to control mosquitoes.
Representatives of the town and condominium association have participated in court-ordered mediation during the last two months.
“It was an eight-hour grueling thing,” said Pat Ganley, a Wellington Arms representative of the June session. “We got nowhere with this. We were not successful.”
Ganley said his group suffered a setback when the mediation judge issued a preliminary draft judgment that sided with Swaim and allowed that the Spanish Creek property was not state-owned sovereign submerged land but rather a result of human activity.
“We lost and it’s devastating to the town,” Ganley told the Town Commission during its July 10 meeting. “We need you to help. So fight it.”
Mayor Geoff Pugh, responding to residents’ calls for more proactive involvement from the commission, said town officials have been actively opposing Swaim behind the scenes and working with the town’s lawyers, but without public comment.
“There are certain things you cannot say while there is an active case,” Pugh said, “otherwise it could completely [undermine] the whole Town Commission and then we’d be nowhere.”
Town Attorney Brian Shutt said even if the court grants Swaim an easement, he will have many obstacles to clear before getting the permits necessary from state agencies, such as the South Florida Water Management District, to develop the property. Swaim has had no success getting permit approval so far.
“The way I’m looking at it, we’re still quite a way from looking at anything actually occurring,” Shutt said.