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Courtroom drama in trial over Vero’s diesel power plant


In the 90-year history of Vero’s historic diesel power plant, a decade is a short time. But in Courtroom One of the county’s courthouse this week, that brief period has filled enough files to crash a computer.

Trial got underway last Friday in the $1.5 million civil suit and countersuit between two longtime Vero developers and the City of Vero Beach. While the facts in the case may be less than scintillating, the allegations arise from a confluence of emotional issues: the crushing economic downtown turn, the environmental sins of the past, and the sentimentality of a landmark from another era.

That landmark was also an environmentally contaminated eyesore, inhabited by hundreds of pigeons, a stream of homeless people – and the hopes of an entire town.

At issue is a dense 45-year lease between the city and B-B Redevelopment LLC, originally owned by architect Charles Block and builder and developer Phil Barth. Another builder/developer, David Croom, eventually took over Block’s slice of the pie, along with Croom’s son Charles.

Charles Croom eventually became project manager, as B-B undertook a restoration at the peak of the real estate boom, certain that a thriving shopping, dining and office complex in the old plant would one day redefine downtown.

In a grueling day of testimony Monday, questioned first by his own attorney Buck Vocelle, and then on cross-examination by the city’s counsel, Eugene O’Neill, Barth, born and raised in Vero, testified that he remembered how residents once set their watches to the noon whistle at the plant.

Starting in 1998, Barth began to envision the project. By then, though, multiple sources of environmental contamination had been found, from the lead paint on the ceiling to the diesel fuel spilled virtually all over the site.

In opening arguments before Seminole County Judge John Galluzzo, Croom and Barth’s attorney Vocelle laid out a noble effort on the part of the developers that was thwarted by the city’s faulty cleanup efforts.

He claimed the city failed to keep the developers apprised of the status of those efforts and the problems popping up at the site. Though the city maintained construction could go on during the clean-up, Barth testified his group didn’t want to be hampered by an escalating list of restrictions like having to test soil every time they dug at the site.

Instead, Barth said, they wanted to wait for certification that the cleanup job was completed and the site was compliant with environmental guidelines. As the cleanup dragged on beyond predictions, Barth wanted rent to be waived.

The city’s attorney, O’Neill, countered in Barth’s cross-examination that the rent was already being waived by the city, not because of contamination but because of the economic downturn.

He went on to point out meetings, documents and emails involving Barth addressing the ramifications of the cleanup.

The city is asking for $70,000 in back rent.

Meanwhile, the plant’s new owner, developer Michael Rechter, was to close on the property Wednesday. He is turning it into a craft brewery, and is assuming responsibility for any remaining environmental issues.

The trial, despite its endless environmental acronyms, construction terms, ledger entries, and email trails is drawing a steady trickle of visitors, including senior Vero attorneys Chester Clem and Bob Jackson.