Environment

Miami developer settles wetlands violation

 

Cmorgan@MiamiHerald.com

The long-running legal dispute over a wetlands violation was so complicated and contentious that at one point U.S. Justice Department attorneys wanted Miami developer Sergio Pino’s company declared in contempt of court over perceived delay tactics and slapped with an additional six-figure penalty.

But on Friday, Pino declared himself “happy” with the settlement Century Homebuilders reached with the Justice Department and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in a civil case that began in 2006 with a citation for a failed wetlands preserve at a Doral development and ended earlier this month with a final check the company wrote to cover $460,000 in federal fines and fees.

“When I met with the Corps, we did it over Cuban coffee,” said Pino, chief executive of a company that during the housing boom ranked among South Florida’s largest home builders. “It was a great meeting and a great settlement and we did what we said we were going to do.”

The Corps issued a release earlier this week announcing that it closed the case after collecting “all monies due.”

“We take violations and unauthorized activities very seriously,’’ said Theresa Hudson, chief of the enforcement section of the Corps’ Jacksonville district, in a statement.

The case stems from the failure of a promised 51-acre wetland project that Century was supposed to create at its Islands of Doral development. Under a 2003 Corps permit, Century had pledged to “mitigate” for building on 415 acres of melaleuca-compromised wetlands by protecting the smaller tract, clearing out invasive species and replanting native foliage likes spikerush and pond apple.

In court documents, the Corps maintained that little of the work was done. But Howard Nelson, a Miami attorney representing Century, said the project was completed but later failed for a variety of reasons. The Justice Department, representing the Corps, filed a lawsuit that produced a 2010 settlement and an unusually stiff penalty for a wetlands violation. Century agreed to pay $400,000 in fines and purchase another $60,000 in “mitigation credits” to help restore former farm lands inside Everglades National Park.

Century complied initially but in June 2011 the company missed a deadline for a $50,000 installment. Federal attorneys then discovered Century had dissolved two subsidiary companies named in the violation and also sold the 51-acre parcel containing the failed preserve to a Venezuelan mining company without notifying the government.

The company — citing deepening financial difficulties caused by the collapse of the South Florida housing market, foreclosures and lawsuits — asked the court to extend its payment deadlines. But in court filings, federal attorneys expressed skepticism and questioned whether Century was maneuvering to escape its obligation. In late 2011, they asked a federal magistrate to declare Century in contempt and slam the company with an added $313,000 in fines.

Those requests were dropped after renewed negotiations last year. Century rescinded the land sale and reactivated the companies and Pino stepped in to personally ensure the debt by issuing a certified letter of credit. Since a new settlement last April, court records show, the company dutifully paid its $10,000 monthly installments and a $213,000 final balloon payment on April 1.

Pino said he has spent the last four years settling lawsuits and putting his home-building companies back on track. He said Century never sought to dodge its debt but simply needed more time to raise money in a tight lending market. With housing values rebounding and the market improving, he said, “We are beginning to be back.’’

Nelson said the company had also completed restoration of the Doral wetlands preserve and, with some management advice from the Corps, the plants were thriving this time.

“If you go out there today, it’s doing wonderfully,’’ Nelson said.

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