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Grand Harbor: Trouble in mainland paradise

STORY BY RAY MCNULTY (Week of September 24, 2020)

Grand Harbor members are poised to go to court, alleging the club’s management has failed to properly maintain facilities – including the community’s two golf courses – and is not operating the club in accordance with the contract between the parties. 

Multiple lawsuits are expected to be filed as soon as next month by individual plaintiffs, with the legal actions financed by nearly $120,000 contributed to the cause by more than 100 members, the Grand Harbor Members Association’s board of governors wrote in an email to members last week.

“Any benefits resulting from the litigation will benefit all club members,” the board’s email stated, adding, “Resolution of this proceeding will take time, but that is the most viable course available for GHMA to do something that will affect major long-term change.”

The lawsuits cannot be filed until late October, after the expiration of a 90-day waiting period triggered by the board’s demand letter to Bayswater Development LLC, the community’s Massachusetts-based developer.

Bayswater is owned by Icahn Enterprises, billionaire Carl Icahn’s New York-based conglomerate.

GHMA board president Doug Sweeny declined to comment on the content of the pre-litigation demand letter – which formally notified Bayswater of the members’ complaints and intent to sue if the dispute cannot be resolved through negotiation – or the deteriorating relationship between the parties.

In an Aug. 27 email seeking contributions from members for its litigation fund, the GHMA board wrote:

“We are at this stage because the developer continues to deny its obligations under the agreement and has bolstered its denials with delay tactics to avoid making the investments that are clearly needed, according to their experts who have evaluated our club.”

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one Grand Harbor member with knowledge of the dispute said the GHMA board formed a screening committee to negotiate the members’ purchase and takeover of the club this year, but no agreement was reached.

“Things have been bad for a long time,” the member said. “I can’t give you a number, but many members are not renewing. Those that will renew are hoping the members will be successful in the purchase and takeover.”

Grand Harbor is one of the largest and most popular country-club communities in the Vero Beach area. Its mainland footprint includes a sizable stretch of lagoon-front property, two golf courses, a spacious clubhouse, tennis complex and marina. There’s also a beach club on the island.

The GHMA board’s email last week was in response to Grand Harbor General Manager Chris Hull’s Sept. 10 letter to members, informing them of an increase in dues and a credit they will receive for the time the club’s operations were reduced.

According to Hull’s letter, the credit will be spread across the next two years and given only to those who renew their memberships for 2021 by Nov. 1.

In its email, the board wrote that it had received “dozens of emails and phone calls complaining bitterly” about Hull’s letter and shared the opinions expressed by members about the club being closed, the inadequacy of the credit and the increase in dues for membership in a club “providing limited services and which has clearly reduced its employee and maintenance costs.”

The board stated that it “attempted to initiate a discussion with management” regarding its concerns over the dues letter, but Hull hadn’t responded.

“The consistent failure ... to communicate is the reason we have resorted to a demand/litigation approach to dealing with the developer,” the board wrote. “We have sent an email to club management expressing our deep dissatisfaction with the dues announcement and likely negative outcomes.”

The dispute between members and management dates to at least 2017, when members complained about the club’s cancellation of wildly popular summer-reciprocal agreements with other local clubs, the halting of golf-course improvement and failure to follow through on other promised community enhancements.

Members also expressed concerns about staff turnover that included the departures of longtime tennis director Christophe Delavaut, golf-club personnel and chefs.

In 2017, members complained to Vero Beach 32963 and sent Bayswater a letter questioning management’s actions, which they said “suggest that the developer is uncaring, unreliable and unresponsive to the concerns of members who already have invested considerable resources in Grand Harbor.”

Bayswater executives responded in a cooperative way.

Management reinstated the reciprocal agreements, resumed work on the promised golf-course and clubhouse enhancements, and imposed a smaller-than-planned increase in annual dues.

By October 2017, members were happy to see workers refurbishing the golf-cart bridges, expanding the golf club’s practice area, redecorating the main clubhouse, renovating the beach club and enhancing the fitness center.

The club also hired a new food-and-beverage manager and new chef.

“If you took a snapshot five or six months ago, you’d see people frustrated and unhappy and grumbling,” Sweeny said back in 2017. “Now, you’d see something considerably different. People are more upbeat. They’re seeing things change, and they’re encouraged by it.”

Over the past year, however, the relationship went south again, prompting members to embark on negotiations to purchase the club and take over its operations.

Management’s decision to shut down all facilities when the coronavirus epidemic reached Florida in March – and then keep them closed, even when other local clubs began reopening later in the spring – made a bad situation worse.

Several members again complained to Vero Beach 32963, though they didn’t want to be identified to avoid hindering any potential agreement. Follow-up calls from this newspaper to Hull went unreturned.

In May, Hull received in the mail an envelope containing what a sheriff’s deputy described as an “unknown white powder” and a note that read, “YOU DESERVE THIS.” The substance was tested and found to be harmless, and the source of the mail, which was sent to his clubhouse office and had no return address, remains a mystery.

However, Hull told the responding deputy he had received complaints from club members frustrated by the club’s virus-related shutdown of all amenities, as well as the possibility some furloughed employees might be upset over losing their jobs.

Hull did not return calls to his office and cellphone then, nor did he respond to a text message seeking comment for this story.