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Major setback in deal for troubled INEOS bio plant
week of November 16, 2017

The green energy firm that has been working for nearly two years to purchase the defunct INEOS bio plant west of Vero has rescinded its last offer and is in the process of renegotiating a price, based upon costly discoveries made during on-site inspections of the property. The good news, said Alliance BioEnergy CEO Daniel de Liege, is that he hasn’t found any major environmental contamination that would require cleanup before the plant is converted to Alliance’s cellulosic ethanol production process. “It doesn’t appear [that there is a problem] . . . there was a Phase 1 environmental done in May,” de Liege said. “But the piles of feedstock sitting there are deteriorating badly; it’s just sitting there rotting away.” De Liege hoped to have the conversion well underway if not completed by the end of 2017 so he could begin turning those piles of yard waste into ethanol. But with the delays, he says the material being stockpiled on the site will be of no value to him by the time he takes ownership. “At this point all timelines are off the table,” he said. READ FULL STORY

Harbor Branch Foundation fights for its endowment
week of November 16, 2017

Just weeks before a mediator seeks to resolve a high-stakes financial dispute with Florida Atlantic University, the leaders of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute Foundation maintain they are the best stewards of a $72 million endowment that was intended to fund marine research – not pay for new computers or software on a distant FAU campus. The university disagrees about who should manage the money. The Foundation came to be in 2007 when the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution’s laboratories and research realm were acquired by FAU. John Seward Johnson Sr., the son of Robert Wood Johnson, one of three founders of the Johnson & Johnson Corporation, had launched the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in 1971 with the help of inventor Edwin Link. READ FULL STORY

Federal judge orders School Board to mediation before hearing deseg lawsuit
week of November 16, 2017

The School Board jumped the gun when it filed a petition in U.S. District Court this summer, claiming it had met some of the requirements of a desegregation order first imposed on Indian River County schools in the 1960s and seeking partial relief from federal oversight. Last Thursday, Nov. 9, U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams ordered the School Board’s petition for “partial unitary status” held in abeyance, agreeing with the NAACP that mediation is required before the two parties argue their case in court. Williams also rejected the School Board’s bid to hand-pick a mediator and granted the NAACP’s request that she appoint a federal judge to fill that role. Senior U.S. District Judge Donald Graham was assigned to “enter a separate order regarding the time, place and procedures governing mediation.” READ FULL STORY

Work underway on luxury Conn Beach oceanfront condos
week of November 16, 2017

Developer Yane Zana isn’t wasting any time getting work underway at his luxury condominium project known as 4091 Ocean. The day after he got his permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, a bulldozer was moving dirt at the site on Ocean Drive, across from Conn Beach Boardwalk, and a few days later 40-foot-deep foundation piling holes were being augured out and filled with concrete and steel. Zana, a St. Ed’s graduate who has lived on the island for more than 30 years and developed a number of large projects here, needed three permits to build the condo: a stamped site plan from the City of Vero Beach, a building permit from the county and the FDEP permit, required because the building is classified as oceanfront. With those in place and two units sold, the developer hopes to complete the condominium – which will have either five or six units – in about 14 months. READ FULL STORY

Martin County schools cost less, and results are better
week of November 16, 2017

Indian River County School District taxpayers are not getting great value for their money, according to budgets submitted to the state for the current school year. According to the budgets, the slightly larger Martin County School District will spend about $18 million less than Indian River County School District while achieving dramatically better academic results. Martin County, which has 18,915 students, will spend $269 million this fiscal year, while Indian River, with 17,541 students, will go through nearly $287 million during the same period. Despite spending less per student, Martin County was No. 8 out of 67 districts in Florida in the state Department of Education rankings in the 2016-17 school year, while Indian River County was mired in a tie for 32nd place. The teacher-student ratio was 1-to-15 at both counties, according to 2016 Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports submitted to the state, so Indian River’s higher spending is not the result of hiring more teachers than Martin. Instead, the difference is mainly related to how much the two counties spend on debt service, purchased services and instruction-related technology. READ FULL STORY

Pro-sale forces expand majority in Vero Council election
week of November 9, 2017

Vero Beach voters issued yet another crystal-clear mandate Tuesday night, electing by a strong plurality the two candidates who vowed to finally get the city out of the electric business by selling the utility to Florida Power & Light. In a veritable blowout, staunch pro-sale candidates Val Zudans and Harry Howle came out on the top of the heap in the race for the two available seats – one Howle will return to, and one being vacated by former mayor and three-term councilman Dick Winger. Winger did not seek re-election, paving the way for two of his close allies, former mayor Jay Kramer and former vice mayor Randy Old, to try to recapture a spot on the council, and tilt the balance back to 3-to-2 in favor of the anti-sale forces. But Winger’s seat went to Zudans instead. The election of both Howle and Zudans enlarges the 3-to-2 pro-sale majority on the council to 4-to-1. Out of the six candidates, Old placed third and Kramer fourth, both double-digits behind Zudans and Howle. Newcomer Megan Hoots and former councilman Brian Heady finished way back. READ FULL STORY

Stunning verdict in Leigh Jewelers robbery retrial
week of November 9, 2017

An Indian River County jury Friday returned a stunning not-guilty verdict for a man who was convicted of trying seven years ago to rob Leigh Jewelers on Ocean Drive. Jamie Grant, who represented himself at trial, was acquitted on all charges related to the 2010 attempted robbery of the island jeweler. He walked away from the Vero Beach courthouse last week with his grandmother and a friend at his side as a free man. His case was retried because of a judicial misstep. In response to an appeal Grant filed from prison, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2016 that Judge Robert Pegg erred in his instructions to the original jury by not allowing discussion about possible lesser charges, such as theft. It also found that the stipulated 10-year minimum incorporated into Grant’s 15-year prison sentence was incorrect since the state failed to prove Grant used a firearm in the commission of a crime. At the time Grant was represented by a public defender. READ FULL STORY

Scammers used local identities to file for FEMA cash after Hurricane Irma
week of November 9, 2017

Two weeks after FEMA housing inspectors showed up at her Summerplace home, Helen Smith Barnet still doesn’t know who pirated her and her husband’s identities to file fraudulent claims in the wake of Hurricane Irma, or how they did it. Nor does anyone at FEMA. “Apparently, there’s a major scam going on,” Barnet said after learning that her and her husband’s dates of birth, Social Security numbers and Doubloon Drive address were used to file for emergency FEMA funds. “When the first inspector knocked on our door, we had no idea what this was about,” she added. “It’s scary that something like this is going on – people are using our personal information and our property to steal money – and we don’t know about it.” Barnet said the inspector, a contractor who worked for WSP USA Inspection Services, told her he had discovered three similar claim-fraud cases that morning. READ FULL STORY

Interim IRMC CEO focused on hospital operations
week of November 9, 2017

A committee of nine hospital officials has selected as interim CEO a woman who, by at least one account, appears to be a hands-on healthcare powerhouse. Karen Davis, a University of Alabama graduate in nursing and healthcare administration with a long career in healthcare finances and operations, is taking over at Indian River Medical Center for Jeff Susi, who retires at the end of December. Davis will oversee a staff of 1,700 at the hospital, and she will try to keep afloat a medical center that has been financially adrift – at times taking on water – for much of Susi’s 19 year tenure. “She’s very impressive,” said Marybeth Cunningham, part of the committee that selected Davis. All nine members had a chance to interview her along with two other candidates. “I think it’s great that she’s an RN by profession so she understands that part of the medical profession. She’s very focused on operations. That’s what she loves,” said Cunningham. “In the interview, she talked a lot about how she likes to be [on the patient floors] at 5 a.m. and at 11:30 at night.” READ FULL STORY

Has deal to buy defunct INEOS plant collapsed?
week of November 9, 2017

Last July, it looked like Indian River County was finally going to be free of problems related to the defunct INEOS biofuel plant, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved West Palm-based Alliance BioEnergy’s offer to buy the monumentally unsuccessful, now-shuttered ethanol operation. The $8 million deal was supposed to close in a couple of months – but now, well into November, the deal has not been sealed and, of late, Alliance CEO Daniel de Liege has not been responding to inquiries. Vero Beach 32963 has attempted to contact de Liege several times, asking about the delay, without getting a response. Last week Commissioner Tim Zorc emailed de Liege, relaying Vero Beach 32963’s request for current information, and did not get a reply. Alliance’s radio silence is eerily reminiscent of the stonewalling that occurred in the months leading up to the INEOS closure, when that company stopped responding to questions from the press and county officials. In August, de Liege told the County Commission that finally, after months of delays and much longer negotiations than he ever expected with the bank and the broker of the property, he was prepared to begin implementation of his eco-fuel production plans. READ FULL STORY

$45 million house on South Beach going to auction
week of November 9, 2017

The barrier island has seen some impressive residential auctions in the past few years, with oceanfront properties going for $10 million or more, but that is nothing compared to what’s coming on Dec. 13, when an 18-bedroom, 23-bath house on South Beach currently listed for $45 million will be sold in a no-reserve, absolute auction. “We don’t know what the house will trade for on that day, but it absolutely will sell on that date,” says Clark French, who works for both Concierge Auctions and Premier Estate Properties and is the lead broker on the sale, sharing the listing with partners Cindy O’Dare and Richard Boga. The estate, which encompasses 27,588 square feet of air-conditioned living space and has more than 40,000 square feet under roof, was completed in late 2015. It sits on a seven-acre parcel with 315 linear feet of ocean frontage and includes a massive main house, two guest houses, a gatehouse/caretaker’s cottage, and a pool larger than the pool at the Vero Beach Hotel and Spa. READ FULL STORY

Man who shot deputy is convicted of attempted murder, faces life
week of November 9, 2017

A man who punched and shot an Indian River County sheriff’s deputy was convicted last week of first-degree attempted murder of a law-enforcement officer. He faces up to life in prison for his involvement in the 2015 shootout. The trial came two years after Deputy Chris Lester was shot in the leg during a routine, early morning traffic stop. Events turned violent after Andrew Coffee Jr. refused the officer’s command to keep his hands on the patrol car. The incident was recorded on the officer’s dashboard camera, which was repeatedly played for the jury. During one viewing, someone in the courtroom gasped in shock. In the scene shown, Coffee Jr. punches the deputy in the face so hard he knocks him to the ground, causing the officer’s glasses to shatter and flashlight to drop. Coffee Jr. then reaches into his waistband and pulls out a 38-caliber revolver and both men start shooting, wounding each other. Lester, now a detective with the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office, testified that Coffee Jr. advanced toward him with his gun drawn as the deputy struggled to stand back up. “As soon as he fired the first round, I began to return fire,” he said. READ FULL STORY

Work finally set to begin on cell tower in Shores
week of November 2, 2017

Work was scheduled to begin this week on the long-awaited cellular phone tower at the Indian River Shores Town Complex. Tower contractor Datapath has all required approvals in hand and the Shores has issued all necessary building permits to begin moving ground and pouring the concrete foundation for the project. Engineers reviewed structural plans with Town Manager Robbie Stabe on Monday. “It should take no more than nine weeks to erect the tower, and no more than six weeks for the provider to get everything working,” said an optimistic Stabe. That timing means the tower would be carrying voice and data traffic by Valentine’s Day. Verizon has signed on to provide service from the tower, and at least one more “major provider” is in the works, though the town cannot release the name until an agreement is executed. READ FULL STORY

Vero visitor to Cuba ponders symptoms similar to diplomats
week of November 2, 2017

Island resident and Merrill Lynch financial adviser Scott Morton is trying to figure out if the persistent numbness in his legs and feet he has suffered since visiting Cuba last year is related to the mysterious attacks on U.S. embassy personal that injured two dozen people stationed in the island nation. First reported in August, the embassy-related victims’ complaints of hearing loss, brain injury and other symptoms date back to the fall of 2016. After extensive investigation, U.S. officials believe a sonic device may have caused the illnesses. The Cuban government denies any involvement; some believe other foreign actors could be involved. According to Associated Press reports, three dozen additional U.S. citizens have contacted the AP about symptoms they think may be related to the Embassy illnesses. After reading an AP article published Oct. 19 that details a Charleston man who visited Cuba suffering from numbness similar to his, Morton got in touch with AP reporter Josh Lederman, who is covering the recent spate of mystery illnesses, to compare his symptoms to those others have reported. READ FULL STORY

No bail for surgeon being held on drug trafficking charges
week of November 2, 2017

Vero Beach spine surgeon Dr. Johnny Benjamin Jr. will have to stay in jail as he awaits trial on federal drug trafficking charges after a judge in West Palm Beach ordered him held without bond. The evidence against Benjamin remains uncontroverted, said Federal Magistrate Judge John Hopkins at the Oct. 25 detention hearing. Since he is accused of manufacturing and illegally selling drugs that resulted in death, it would be hard not to see him as a danger to the community or a flight risk, he said, calling Benjamin’s case one of the most tragic he has seen in his career. The defendant became aware the Fentanyl he allegedly sold was hurting people and it appears he proceeded to obstruct justice anyway, Hopkins said. He has large debts, is facing a potential life sentence, and had more than 20 loaded guns at his house. The United States Drug Enforcement Agency began investigating Benjamin last year after tracing the source of fentanyl-laced oxycodone that led to the 2016 overdose death of a Palm Beach woman. READ FULL STORY

Jennifer Benjamin: Pet columnist
week of November 2, 2017

Jennifer Benjamin, a dog lover who originated the pet column in Vero Beach 32963, last week lost a valiant four-decade battle with type 1 diabetes. She was 53. Jennifer, daughter of 32963 publisher Milton Benjamin and his wife Tina, moved to Vero Beach from Washington, DC, in 1996 after undergoing a pioneering kidney-pancreas transplant. That time, she was hospitalized for more than eight months, much of it in the ICU. In the decade after the transplant, however, she tenaciously fought her way back to health sufficient to enable her to work as a volunteer victim’s advocate with the State Attorney’s Office in Vero. But residual diabetic complications from a disease that blind-sided her in her mid-teens took a cumulative toll. She was constantly in and out of hospitals. In 2007, toxic antirejection drugs began to kill her transplanted kidney. In 2008, a clot in an artery cut off the blood supply to her transplanted pancreas. Once again, she was a late-stage diabetic in kidney failure. READ FULL STORY

Even with World Series, not much buzz here about Dodgers
week of November 2, 2017

Last week, for the first time in 70 years, the Los Angeles Dodgers went to a World Series without any tangible ties to Vero Beach, and almost nobody here seemed to care. Such a possibility was unthinkable in 1988, when the Dodgers won their sixth world championship and Vero Beach wasn't just the home of Dodgertown – then America's most revered and nostalgic spring-training site – but it was a Dodger town. "We did everything here," said Craig Callan, the longtime Vero Beach resident who has spent most of his adult life managing the operations at Dodgertown and, more recently, Historic Dodgertown. "We had spring training, extended spring training, the rookie league Dodgers, the Vero Beach Dodgers, the fall instructional league . . . We were the hub of the entire organization," he added. "We also had a strong and constant presence in the community. There was a real connection between the team and town." READ FULL STORY

Windsor expands equestrian center with polo practice field
week of November 2, 2017

Riding a resurgence of local interest in polo, Windsor has expanded its Equestrian Center facilities with the installation of a new 170-yard-long stick-and-ball field that can be used for practice, three-on-three matches or other horseback activities. "This is an exciting time for us," said Max Secunda, Windsor's director of equestrian operations. "Windsor is very supportive of polo, and the addition of this multi-use field enhances and expands our capabilities while injecting new energy into the place. "Not only do members have a place to practice their polo on a regular basis, but we also expect it to attract beginners – and especially children – to the sport," he added. "And while the popularity of polo is growing again, this field can be used for other equestrian disciplines, too. "There are a number of people who love to just ride horses. That's a big part of life at Windsor." Windsor's Equestrian Center, equipped with 22 stables and 14 paddocks, is a unique amenity on the barrier island, offering boarding, maintenance, riding lessons, recreational riding and a full-sized polo field for exhibition matches. READ FULL STORY

Andrew Coffee Jr. convicted of attempted murder of a deputy
week of November 2, 2017

Andrew Coffee Jr., a man accused of attempted murder of a law-enforcement officer, sat quietly in a maroon shirt and tie Monday as jury selection for his high-profile trial began in an Indian River County courtroom. One by one perspective jurors came into the fourth-floor gallery to discuss what they had heard about the case. Many had read about the charges in the newspaper or seen it on TV. Several had seen online dashboard camera footage from the December 2015 traffic stop and shootout. In the video, Coffee, Jr. is seen arguing with an Indian River County Sherriff’s Office deputy during an early morning traffic stop. Records state he had been pulled over by Deputy Chris Lester while driving a scooter without proper tags. Conversation between the two quickly escalates and when the officer tells Coffee Jr. to put his hands on the vehicle, Coffee Jr. pivots in a flash and slugs the deputy in the face, knocking him down. READ FULL STORY

After Vegas massacre, security a top priority for December’s Beach Town Music Festival
week of November 2, 2017

With the Jake Owen-headlined Beach Town Music Festival only five weeks away, Sheriff Deryl Loar said he will take every realistic precaution to ensure the safety of those who attend the two-day event at the Indian River County Fairgrounds. "What happened in Las Vegas was horrific," Loar said, referring to the Oct. 1 shooting rampage in which a lone gunman killed 58 people and wounded more than 500 others at an outdoor, country music concert. "That's not going to happen on my watch." In fact, just hours after the Vegas massacre, Loar summoned his executive staff to a Monday morning meeting to discuss additional security strategies for the Dec. 8-9 festival here. Loar said he also has told Assistant County Administrator Mike Zito that he will not sign off on the permit required to hold the festival at the fairgrounds unless the promoter agrees to cover any additional costs for the enhanced security measures. "We already had a plan for the concert, just as we do for any large-scale event, but after what happened in Las Vegas, we're going to double and, in some cases, even triple our efforts,” Loar said. READ FULL STORY