Luminary hotel fight racks up $122-thousand legal bill

Reporter: Lauren Sweeney
Published: Updated:
Luminary Hotel rendering

From February through the beginning of August, the City of Fort Myers paid lawfirm Knott, Ebelini, Hart more than $122,000 in legal fees to fight a quiet title action related to a proposed hotel.

The city entered into an agreement with Mainsail Development in 2017 to build the Luminary Hotel adjacent the Harborside events center and a bandshell that will be constructed at Centennial Park.

But in 2018, the project hit a snag when Mainsail applied for financing on the project and a deed restriction on the property was discovered.

In the 1930’s, several families sold land to the city of Fort Myers with similar language in the deeds: land was not to be sold or leased for business purposes; land was to be used for park or yacht basin purposes.

In May, the city filed suit against the descendants of the Dean, Stadler and Heyser families to remove the deed restriction.

Mark Ebelini, one of the outside attorneys for the city, told a judge during a hearing in August that the city will have to pay the project’s developer $2.8 million dollars if the project cannot move forward.

Ebelini is working alongside former mayor James Humphrey to represent the city in the suit.

Invoices show the firm is being paid around $275 an hour.

Humphrey told city council during an April meeting, that the city knew about the deed restriction as far back as 2010 but decided to move forward with bidding a hotel project.
The restriction did not stop construction from beginning either: the parking lot that sat on the property for decades has been torn out and cranes flank the skyline as work continues daily.

“That’s exactly the position the city wants the judge to be in. They want this half constructed, convention center, parking facility, hotel complex to be in a such a state that tearing it down would cost a lot of money,” said Jeff Schwartz, a former judge and professor at Cooley Law School in Tampa.

This may not be the only time the city has to take such an issue to court.

“The waterfront area … was deeded. That was promised land for the people,” said Jim Pridgen, a New Jersey man who claims he is a descendant of the Vivas family, who at one time owned the land where Park of Palms now sits.

Pridgen said the city has already been in contact with him regarding developing the park for a different purpose.

A city spokesperson would not answer any questions about future plans for the riverfront area or confirm the potential cost to taxpayers if the restriction is not cleared.

“The city declines to comment as this is active litigation,” wrote spokesperson Stephanie Schaffer.

The mayor also declined a request for an interview. Mainsail development never responded to an email from WINK News.

The lead attorney for the descendants has told WINK News in the past that he and his clients would not be commenting until the case is resolved.

The trial to clear the deed restriction is set for December.

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