By Dan Moffett
After nearly six years of legal conflict over the fate of an Ocean Ridge lagoon, residents of the Wellington Arms Condominium and developer William Swaim might be close to ending hostilities.
Both sides agreed to a settlement last year during court-ordered mediation, and their lawyers are trying to work out the complicated details of an easement agreement that would allow the residents to use their docks and access the waterway behind their condos.
Details of the settlement have not been disclosed, and neither Wellington Arms residents nor their attorney responded to requests for comment.
Swaim’s Waterfront ICW Properties owns two lots in the lagoon — submerged land he claims reaches under the condominium’s boat docks. The developer has demanded the condo owners remove their docks, so he can build single-family homes, and filed suit against the Wellington Arms in 2015.
Swaim, in an email sent to The Coastal Star, said the dispute with the condominium was “amicably settled” in the mediation, and he cited a subsequent court ruling last summer that upheld his ownership claims to the lagoon land.
“Last July we prevailed in a four-day trial against the State of Florida quieting title to all our property in Ocean Ridge,” he wrote.
In that trial, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Donald Hafele ruled that the mangrove-rich lagoon was largely man-made and was not navigable in its original state some 180 years ago. That decision recognized Swaim’s lots as buildable land that isn’t protected as sovereign by state statutes.
Hafele’s ruling against the state has a potentially significant impact on other cases Swaim has pending, one of them a suit against the Town of Ocean Ridge in which he seeks easement access to his lots across property the town owns behind the Town Hall building.
From the outset, Swaim has asserted that the lagoon is not a pristine natural wetland but rather a construction project by the Army Corps of Engineers, which dredged out the area decades ago for mosquito control.
Hafele relied on so-called “ancient documents” — arcane surveys and maps — from the 19th century to determine that the lagoon was largely a creation of man, not of nature. At the time Florida became a state in 1845, records show that the lagoon was not a navigable waterway, the court found.
“The 1872 Official Township Plat was made prior to any of the man-made changes shown in this record, is the only survey or sketch in the record supported by detailed field notes, and was made by surveyors who were directed by the federal government to identify and meander navigable water bodies,” Hafele wrote in his opinion.
“The absence of any indication of a water body anywhere near the location of the disputed property, and the absence of meander information with regard thereto, creates a significant hurdle for the (state) to overcome.”
The state is appealing Hafele’s ruling.
Last August, a mediation session between Swaim and the town failed to resolve their dispute over the right-of-way access behind Town Hall. None of the current town commissioners was in office when the lawsuit began.
The town’s public position has been a wait-and-see approach that deferred action to the state and its South Florida Water Management District, as well as the Army Corps of Engineers, which have not granted Swaim permits to build. Commissioners have said that, without permits, the request for the right of way is essentially moot.
Residents and environmentalists have been horrified at the thought of someone ripping out mangroves and trucking in fill to turn the wildlife-rich lagoon into a construction site and another Florida development.
Swaim has maintained all along that he is a developer who wants to “follow the process.”
“Nothing will be done without permits,” he has said, “and anything that needs to be complied with will be complied with.”