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Aventura island enclave threatened by plan for condo towers a bridge away

Eight years ago, Elizabeth Sawicki and her husband, Daniel, paid nearly $4 million for one of 22 homes on an exclusive island off Aventura. Now they face a problem: the even more exclusive island next door.

The developer behind their ritzy neighborhood, Island Estates, had planned an even tonier cluster of about 20 single-family homes just over the bridge on the still-vacant island to the north. But now he is marketing plans for a pair of 16-story condominium towers there, a complex called Privé with 160 apartments and parking spaces for nearly 600 cars.

“There goes our peace and tranquility,” Sawicki said on a walk with her chow-and-terrier mix, Cleopatra, near the bridge that connects the two islands. “This is not going to be the private place we bought into.”

The lawsuit Sawicki and her wealthy neighbors filed against developer Gary Cohen may hinge on the zoning technicalities of sidewalk variances, vested development rights and other arcana of property law surrounding what is billed as the last vacant island home site in South Florida. But the dispute over the seven-acre site also touches on the larger question of when is it fair — and not to mention legal — for developers to dramatically alter their announced visions for adjoining properties?

“Developers get to change their minds like everybody else,” said Andrew Hall, a veteran trial lawyer with Hall, Lamb and Hall in Coconut Grove who has represented developers and home buyers in contract disputes. “Unless [the developer] contracts to make it an obligation.”

Cohen declined an interview request made through his company’s publicist. But the developer’s legal team describes the case as a luxe example of caveat emptor. They contend Cohen and his development firm have long had the right to build the proposed complex, and that Sawicki and other buyers shouldn’t have purchased their homes without first confirming that the original plans for the adjoining island were irreversible.

“I don’t think there is any question that every buyer received exactly what was promised in terms of their single-family home. What is at issue is what was proposed to be built on the other property,” said Cohen lawyer John Shubin, of Shubin and Bass in Miami.

“They’re next to an island where there is absolutely no prohibition that prevented the developer, that prevented Gary Cohen, from coming forward with a new development plan to match market conditions,” Shubin continued. “The neighbors got exactly what they bargained for.”

Much of the fight boils down to the brick-lined road that wraps the northwestern side of the Island Estates community. No wider than 25 feet, it’s too narrow for a shoulder or street parking. Shubin said the size complies with regulations for residential roads. The street would provide the only route to the mainland for Privé. Homeowners say the trucks needed for constructing the pair of condo towers would be a nightmare that would then yield an unending stream of traffic from a community that has requested 574 parking spaces in zoning documents.

“They’re narrow streets because they were built for homes, and not heavy-volume traffic,” said Dan Kleiman, who shares a 5,500-square-foot home with his wife, Sheila, near the bridge, gatehouse and traffic-circle fountain that marks the entrance to Island Estates. They paid $2.6 million in 2004. “Everybody came here to live the dream.”

The suit, along with similar legal action filed by nearby Williams Island against Aventura to block municipal approval of Privé, has cast one of the ritziest corners of South Florida real estate into a fight over how many others should be allowed to occupy it. Island Estates residents claim Cohen’s plans have stuck their posh enclave with a there-goes-the-neighborhood stigma.

“The property resale value has already plummeted,” said Alan Reyf, a car dealer who paid $4 million for his 7,000-square-foot Island Estates home in 2006. His neighbor, Kleiman, scoffed when describing a recent sale in the “mid-threes,” which he described as “giveaway money” compared to what the home should be worth.

When Cohen won permission to develop the south island in the late 1990s, he was able to create larger lots by asking Aventura to waive a requirement for building sidewalks on either side of the road. He built one walkway along the waterfront, in exchange for agreeing to add a second sidewalk if the north island “should be developed with residential units other than single-family homes,” according to zoning documents.

While Cohen’s lawyers protected the north island’s “vested rights” for condo towers under older zoning laws, Cohen had planned a slightly smaller cluster of single-family homes on the north island. In 2007, Cohen submitted to Aventura a plan to turn the 10 acres of land into “Casas de Oro,” a cluster of 17 homes built on lots no smaller than 16,000 square feet, according to city records. Now he’s pursuing a different plan, which his lawyers argue he is free to do.

Aventura has already given preliminary approval for the Privé site plan. But Cohen still needs building permits, and the association’s lawyer said that process will force Aventura to step in and stop the project without a second sidewalk.

“We’re confident when the city does address that [variance], they will do the right thing,” said Susan Raffanello, the lawyer with Miami’s Coffey Burlington who is representing the Island Estates homeowners in their suit against Cohen and Two Island Development Corp., his development firm.

On Oct. 7, Aventura sent Cohen a letter warning him he would need a second sidewalk once he received a building permit for the Privé condo complex. The problem: the land needed to build a walkway is now privately owned by the island’s homeowners, including Sawicki, Kleiman and Reyf.

Cohen’s plans for Privé have brought some close-quartered ill will into the cloistered island. Cohen lives there, too, in a 7,000-square-foot home on a lot that tax records show he paid $475,000 for in 1995. The homeowners association board ousted him from his post as president last month, Raffanello said.

Cohen’s father, Norman, was an early Aventura developer, and his holdings eventually became the Williams Island development when he sold the land to the Trump Group (headed by brothers Jules and Eddie, and no relation to Donald Trump). Island Estates connects to the mainland through Williams Island.

The original plan for single-family homes on the north island was put on hold sometime after the housing market crashed in 2007. By 2011, Cohen was trying to sell the entire northern island in one swoop, with an asking price of $50 million. And while he touted the land as perfect for a lavish mansion, the price tag and available land size seemed more likely to require the higher per-foot revenue that comes with condo sales.

In August, Cohen, who controlled the land through a family trust, announced he had brought in a new partner, BH3, to pursue a condo venture themselves. BH3 was launched in 2009 to reposition “underperforming” assets, and lists the Trump Hollywood, Fontainebleau Sorrento tower and 1805 Ponce among its South Florida projects.

Renderings of Privé show two squat towers hulking over a leafy island, their upper floors tall enough to reflect on the artist’s version of the far shore. The cheapest units sell for $2 million, with Cohen asking more than $6 million for penthouses. The project’s marketing campaign touts the kind of exclusivity that Island Estates residents claim they’ll lose if Privé opens.

“Eight acres of privacy is about to become 160 units of supreme luxury,” Privé posted on its Twitter feed on Nov. 18. A week earlier it posted a sunset photo with the observation: “The view is always extraordinary when you’re surrounded by water.”