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Rising on Vero’s south beach: Dream home or nightmare?

It was symbolic of the wrenching trauma Vero Beach underwent as a community in the aftermath of the 2004 hurricanes. What was once a family’s home, on a coveted beachfront lot, appeared to be crumbling toward the still-roiling ocean, concrete steps descending into the truncated dune, sands severed abruptly by the waves.

The image, in video shot by the home’s owners, was broadcast around the world, as the eyes of two storms passed over the intimate beachside community of Vero Beach. Sympathy poured out for the victims and their loss.

Now, hardly a whisper of compassion comes their way.

Five years later, with an indomitable spirit, the Vero beachside community has rebuilt. And in the past few months, the occupants of that devastated home, Lewis Barton, his wife Mary, and their daughter Athena, have begun rebuilding as well. Indomitable does not begin to describe them. Ask their neighbors. Ask county officials. Check the cartload of court files.

But on this lot on Vero’s south beach, in a quiet area of one and two story homes nestled between Seagrove and the Moorings, the Bartons are building a dream house that is a different symbol — no doubt the stuff of nightmares — to those within the Lewis Barton force field.

A website reveals a wildly ambitious project, an enormous, four-story structure, which Barton admits has no architect: 45,000 square feet of “green construction” that, in an endless stream of superlatives, he claims will be a “100- percent renewable energy plantation,” Florida’s first and the country’s largest 100-percent renewable energy home.

Never mind that this is a residential neighborhood. The completed building, which the website likens to the Tara Plantation of Gone With The Wind, will double as a movie studio. Barton claims the entire four stories – and even the roof – will be of poured concrete. His plans show three wind turbines, a pool and a helicopter pad – all on the roof.

Never mind that Department of Energy experts have warned him not to put the turbines up there. He says they have warned him “the vibration will tear the place up. The noise will go straight through the steel.”

But it takes more than turbines to shake up Lewis Barton.

Any one of an endless stream of problems would have thrown a lesser man than Lewis Barton off course. Two hurricanes that destroyed his house, restaurant and business were his most obvious enemies – though some say he made them scapegoats and found a silver lining in the storm clouds in insurance proceeds.

From the day he bought the property in the late 1990s, Barton has faced off with his title insurance company, his homeowner’s insurance company, the county Code Enforcement Board, his outraged neighbors, the sheriff’s department, the state Department of Environmental Regulation, three lenders threatening foreclosure, and the seller of a Ft. Pierce restaurant Barton bought who went to court for payment and eventually won it back from Barton – and Barton had code enforcement issues there, too.

It is as if Barton exists in a perpetual state of locked horns, and many would say he comes in with head lowered.

In Dec. 1996, when he bought the home, it was damaged on the northeast side. Barton started building a sea wall – a mammoth concrete sea wall — and doing repair work. As work progressed, the county challenged his permits, and finally issued a stop-work order. A year later, it ordered fines levied against him at $100 a day.

Barton, in turn, filed suit against the county in federal court alleging violations of his civil rights, claiming the county had sent in armed sheriff’s deputies who had threatened his workers, and circled his house with the sheriff’s helicopter.

Barton himself has filed for bankruptcy at least twice – both as maneuvers to avoid foreclosure. He has filed complaints with the Florida Bar over his legal representation, and now opts to represent himself.

“He’s done a better job that some lawyers I know,” says former Barton attorney Buck Vocelle. “I’ve been in court when he’s been in there. It makes sense not only on paper, but also in his oral presentations. It’s not always the most lucid thing, but he gets his point across.”

“He’s incredibly bright – he’s creative in financing and he’s creative in the courtroom. How many people do you know who can borrow $1 million with no credit? How many people have stayed on the same piece of property for six years and never made the first payment on the mortgage?”

Vocelle exaggerates, but very slightly: Barton did pay for certain some $70,000 to stave off the most recent foreclosure proceeding when it first was threatened in 2003. But even that appears to have come from another loan.

He refuses to pay the $100 a day fine, which now stands at a staggering $253,000, and only stopped accruing in 2006 when his house was finally torn down after Hurricane Jeanne ripped off the roof and second story.

Add to that quarter-million dollar fine another more recent fine from July 2007 for leaving old wood from the wrecked house in a pile in his yard, which eventually climbed to $48,000. Barton calls it “beautiful wood” that he intends to use in his new building, and finally put it away in storage. The fine still stands.

The fines are in the form of liens of up to 20 years against Barton’s personal property as well as the house, though the county can no long put a claim against the house because officials say Barton recently had it reinstated as his homestead.

Does this concern Barton? “Oh, I’ll never pay it,” he declares.

With no apparent concerns, Barton shows up on the site himself at age 66, strapping on a back support and working up a sweat day after day. The 15-car garage and guest house currently under construction add up to 8,000 square feet alone, according to the website.

It is likely not news to Barton that a new Florida statute protects green construction in that “you can control but not restrict the use of energy saving devices,” according to the building official on the case, who seems to be perpetually waiting for another shoe to drop.

“Why do I fight?” Barton asks rhetorically. “Why do I seem to be continuing to succeed, at least to some degree? Why do I keep building? You might say, this whole thing doesn’t quite fit together. There’s a part that’s missing here. We hear all these things about Lewis Barton, and how bad he is, or he’s a crook or a maverick or a rebel. We hear all this stuff. But he keeps on going. What’s missing in this story?” He runs through his own narrative, posing questions he wants others to answer.

Slowly, for emphasis, he answers his own musing: “It’s my personality,” he says. “Other people give up. The fundamental core of all these stories that we hear, it all hinges on my personality.”

“He’s an eccentric,” says county building official Buddy Akins, letting loose with a bellow of a laugh. He seems surprised that Barton himself has directed a reporter to him to ask what makes Lewis Barton tick.

“Eccentrics don’t do things in a normal fashion. I don’t think you’ll ever put a pencil on it. There are so many aspects to this thing that no one person other than Lewis knows what they all are —- and some people question whether he knows or not. But he’ll find them out eventually.”

It would seem the final court ruling in a Dec. 2005 foreclosure proceeding would have thrown a major wrench into the works. But Barton started building anyway, with what funds, no one knows.

This week, a court ruling will almost certainly dump a massive debt from that case back on Barton: an estimated $300,000 to $500,000, at minimum, in interest on a foreclosed mortgage, plus another significant sum, by some estimates likely in the $200,000, in attorneys’ fees. Barton had hoped to not only escape foreclosure on a $900,000 note (he paid off the principal last year after trial from insurance proceeds), but wanted to sue the lender, City First, for damages that would have more than covered that amount, he told press at the time.

The trial court agreed the lender had “unclean hands:” an arcane way of saying it violated state unfair trade practices when Barton, chronically late with payments, tried to catch up and get them to call off the foreclosure. The lender had given Barton one amount, taken his checks, cashed them, applied them to the debt, then claimed it was not enough to ward off foreclosure, and would not put in writing an agreement on the matter.

The trial judge awarded Barton damages – an offset of $312,000, the amount of interest accrued during the time the dispute was ongoing, but the appellate court ruled the law did not support awarding him damages, even though City First did in fact have “unclean hands.”

The foreclosure proceedings were allowed to go forward.

“My feeling throughout the whole trial was that what (City First) did was much more egregious than anything they tried to throw at Lewis,” says Vocelle, who represented Barton at trial.

What is scheduled to happen in court next is a recalculation of the interest owed to include the overturned offset, plus attorneys’ fees.

With dispensation of that case, Barton faces another: a suit by Oculina Bank over a $600,000 loan and an unclear title that went with it. Back in 1998, Barton took out a mortgage through Republic Bank and AmSouth Bank, eventually having it assigned to his TV production company.

He claims the mortgages were paid off “around 2000” by his company, but title was never officially cleared. In 2001 — without his knowledge, he insists — those mortgages were voided out in a foreclosure settlement with First Union (Wachovia). That payoff was funded by the City First mortgage. In May 2004, in the midst of the foreclosure mess with City First, he took out a $600,000 “bridge” loan from Oculina (along with an $80,000 loan at the same time).

First American Title Company insured the unclear title. When the problem was discovered in the City First trial, the way Barton explains it, the title insurance company paid off Oculina for nearly the full amount of the loan in January 2008.

Barton says Oculina’s $600,000 was used to buy Chuck’s Seafood restaurant in Fort Pierce, though he says he also arranged owner-financing for $1.25 million. The courts would eventually rule that Barton defaulted on that as well, eventually returning it to Peter Angelos, who again owns the landmark today.

When all the loan activity came out during the City First trial, it was all too much for the judge to take. “I’m just amazed at this,” Judge Hawley was quoted in the local press as having told Barton in court. “I don’t know how the banks are giving away money like this. You’ve had two foreclosures, you’ve been in bankruptcy. So you’ve gotten lucky? Is that what you’re saying?”

Barton countered that his oceanfront property must have appealed to lenders. For whatever reason – and subsequent years would cast doubt on lenders’ motives in general — that loan was on top of a loan he had already taken out to cover a $48,000 payment to City First, hoping to keep City First’s foreclosure at bay.

It did not. The foreclosure went forward anyway.

Lewis Barton operates with all balls in the air, all plates spinning and tigers rearing up on pedestals, pawing the air.

There is the book he has worked on for 25 years and says Athena, his daughter, is co-authoring, based, he says, on his friendship with the Palm Beach niece and nephew of the man on whom The Godfather was modeled.

On his website, he refers to it as a “fictional novel” that an organization called the “Manhattan Literary Group” has declared a “pre-published best-seller.” From that book will come a screenplay and from that, a movie, which will be shot at his house – hence the helicopter pad on the roof; it’s required for a key scene.

“I won’t be finishing a lot of the house until after we’ve finished the movie,” he says. “Otherwise it would all just get wrecked anyway, and have to be rebuilt.”

The house, which he calls the Athena Marie Plantation, has its own website too. The site features two webcams running 24/7 trained on the construction site, and to the neighbors’ dismay, the path that provides beach access for the neighbors.

One neighbor’s grown daughter recently called her mother from another city, and started the conversation with, “So what were you doing this morning chasing the dog back from the beach?”

Neighbors say a simple adjustment could exclude their access strip, and keep images of them – in bathing suits, no less – from being broadcast to the world.

To Barton, though, the cameras are a way of documenting his efforts in the most open manner possible.

“Everybody thought Barton was just a crook, but he puts 24/7 webcams on his house all the time so everybody can see what he’s doing,” Barton says, imagining people’s conundrum with him with obvious pleasure. “This is the guy that’s hiding everything, that’s so dishonest?”

Just last week, the building department came out and inspected and found a minor violation which Barton is going to have to correct: the treads on his stairs are not the same width, which isn’t allowed.

“That’s just the way it is,” says building official Akins. “There’s no latitude on that, and he wanted it to look one way, but it can’t be that way. He just has to fix what’s there, and that’s been something he’s had a hard time doing.

“Lewis felt like we were, ‘You can’t do this and you can’t do that.’ And he finally realized, what we were saying is, ‘You can’t do that the way you want to do that, but here’s another way.’ Once we got that working relationship,it’s been pretty easy. He’s a little hot-headed, but he gets over it. He screams and hollers, but then he comes back and says, ‘Now what?’ We’ve got a pretty good relationship.”

Still, issues build like a stalled storm hovering over warm waters.

“This building is a very unusual residence” he said. “It’s huge for that lot. It’s four stories high, with ten or 15-foot setbacks. That lot is big enough to hold it, but I’m not saying that lot can sustain it.”

Already, Barton’s vision for the house has stepped up the requirements he must meet from a residential code to a commercial code. At the same time, he has entered into an uncharted realm, a second set of rules called “threshold requirements.”

“We just got those in 2004 and his is the first house under those rules.”

One thing is certain: the existing septic system won’t support it, Akins says, once he starts work on more than the carriage house he is building now. Barton will face a major investment and a multitude of issues tying into county sewer lines, which don’t exist on his street.

“This is the way Lewis works: He might pour a lot of money down a big dark hole and change his mind halfway down the hole,” says Akins. “But it doesn’t matter to me.”

Barton enjoyed playing the good guy when the county couldn’t find a way to access the beach for a massive renourishment project. Barton, balls still in the air, figured out that the company doing the project would also have the means of bulldozing the wreckage of his previous house, a bone of contention with his neighbors who had to walk past on that path to the beach.

He will not say how much he was paid for the access to the beach, but the heavy equipment coming in and out because of the project provoked one adjacent neighbor to move his mailbox towards the Barton property in order to keep the tractors from driving on his lawn.

The renourishment project wasn’t as disruptive as neighbors feared, though they still suspect it was a “sweet deal” that Barton got on having his house knocked down and hauled off by the company contracted by the county.

But the mailbox, as well as other landscape items like timbers and rocks, are still in place, and what was once a gravel “shoulder,” Barton says, is now grassed over. Barton says trucks have to make wild maneuvers to get past it all. Neighbors counter that the trucks shouldn’t be driving off the pavement anyway. Nevertheless Barton has bombarded county agencies with requests that it all be hauled off or at least moved – he says they are on county property.

In the meantime, trucks now unloading materials for Athena Marie Plantation- to-be have to leave their loads in the middle of the cul de sac, and Barton has to transport them with a forklift up to the site.

One day, he says, he saw a little neighbor boy on his tricycle who came up to watch the heavy equipment, and designed himself a little obstacle course weaving and out of the wheels of a tractor trailer rig. Barton snapped a photo, as proof of how dangerous the cramped access had become.

“I happened to be there at the right moment,” he says. “What if I’d been watching and I saw the tractor trailer running over a four-year old? Do you have any idea what sort of impression that makes on you?” he asks, voice straining at his torment had he born witness to the averted tragedy, pondering his pain and suffering.

“Why do I fight?” he asks. “Why do I seem to be continuing to succeed at least to some degree? Why do I keep building?”

He imagines he is the reporter asking question of the people who know him best – his engineer, David Knight. County attorney Will Collins. His own former attorney, Buck Vocelle.

“Ask them,” Barton happily urges a reporter. “Tell them I told you to. How does a man put it together and do what he’s doing? Obviously he’s got limited funds, but whether it’s City First, or Oculina, or the county, he takes them on and keeps on going. Tell them, ‘I want to know what makes him tick.’

Attorney Buck Vocelle, who used to represent Barton, doesn’t mince his words – though he cleared several of them with Barton before speaking to a reporter.

“He’s a pain in the ass,” Vocelle says. “He’s also one of the most creative people I’ve ever met. He’s highly intelligent. He’s like a cat with nine lives. Just when you think he’s done, he springs back up. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“He’s had a hard time getting to understand what the code requires him to do and what he envisions himself doing,” says county building official Akins. “It’s hard to do a code review on something that’s all in his head. We’ve had to keep him aware of that. This is not unusual with people; it’s just that it’s constant with him.”

“Just when you think he’s got as many plates spinning as possible, and then a big semi comes down the road straight at him,” says someone who has crossed paths with Barton, and did not want to be named, “somehow he still pulls out of it.

He’s very, very intelligent.”

Barton’s mettle will be tested next week in Fort Pierce, when he serves as his own attorney again, this time in a two-day jury trial. Peter Angelos of Chuck’s Seafood is taking Barton to court to recover $75,000 in attorney’s fees and court costs from a bond Barton posted but won’t release without a judge reviewing the total.

Those costs, which Barton calls “outrageous” and “unreal,” are from another trial that ended up going to appeal, with the ruling coming down smack in the middle of the City First trial in December 2005. Angelos, founder of Chuck’s who had taken Barton to court demanding payment on a note for $1.25 million, won back ownership from Barton in that case.

Chuck’s was also badly damaged in the 2004 hurricanes, while Barton owned it. Anglelos referred to what he said was a $400,000 insurance payout, speaking at the time of the trial verdict to a reporter, and wondering where that money had gone; Barton now says he used it to “keep things running” during repairs, and gave Angelos $150,000 of it.

With a wing of the dining room essentially ripped off by winds, Barton found it in his heart – and budget – to give away “$20,000 worth of food, 1,300 dinners to policeman, sheriff’s deputies, anyone who needed food,” an act that earned him what he says is “the only person on the Treasure Coast that’s ever earned the Point of Light award from President Bush.”

Whether that spirit of beneficence comes through to the jury is hard to foretell. This time, the irony is too much for Barton: the Fort Pierce trial is set to begin April 1. Try as he might, he cannot suppress his reaction to his imagined headline:

“Barton’s Pro Se Defense in First Jury Trial Begins April Fools’ Day,” he manages to say, before issuing a nearly silent wheeze of glee.