After 11 years as the owner of Monty’s Raw Bar, a Coconut Grove institution with deep ties to City Hall, Bob Christoph, Jr. is ready to sell. All he needs now is the city’s permission — something that may not come if one Miami commissioner gets his way.
Commissioner Marc Sarnoff told the Miami Herald he’s concerned that the title for the venue, which sits on city-owned land and pays the city about $1 million a year in rent and percentages, isn’t “clean.” He said he’s trying to protect valuable bayfront land, but critics in and around city hall believe the issue is strictly political.
“We’ve gone through some due diligence and there’s some holes,” Sarnoff said. “I think we have a fiduciary duty to make sure the chain of title is clean.”
The pending sale of the popular marina and restaurant at 2550 S. Bayshore Dr. took center stage Thursday morning in a roundabout way during Miami’s bi-monthly commission meeting. Early in the morning, Sarnoff moved to defer the renewal of a bay bottom lease between the city and state that allows the city to use state-owned submerged land beneath a Monty’s dock.
The city mistakenly allowed the lease to lapse six months ago, and according to its lease with Christoph’s Bayshore Landing, LLC, the city has an obligation to renew the agreement in good faith. Commissioners were considering a 10-year renewal for $2,400 a year.
But Sarnoff, who represents Coconut Grove, moved to defer the item, saying he was concerned about a related issue with Monty’s. City Manager Daniel Alfonso then explained the issue was related to a transfer of the property.
The value and deadline of the Monty’s sale isn’t clear; Christoph declined a request to comment. But by holding up the bay bottom lease Sarnoff was potentially throwing a monkey wrench in Bayshore Landing’s ability to close on a sale and transfer of the lease, which is good until 2035.
Commissioners agreed to defer the issue, and voted 2-2 when Commissioner Francis Suarez, who was absent for the first vote, arrived and unsuccessfully tried to bring the lease renewal back for approval. “I think it might create other problems for the city of Miami to defer this,” Suarez said.
He was right. At 1:30 p.m., Suzanne Amaducci-Adams, an attorney representing Bayshore Landing., sent an email to city officials with an attached document warning Miami that it was now in default of its lease.
“It is unfortunate that a ministerial oversight by the City has elevated to such a level,” she wrote, adding that Sarnoff’s assertions that title documents were lacking “are not accurate statements.”
Two hours later, after a lunch break, Sarnoff suddenly brought back the bay bottom lease renewal and it passed. He said he was unaware of Amaducci’s email, and had a change of heart after speaking with Alfonso, who said he’d give the pending sale of Monty’s a thorough review before deciding whether to approve it.
Sarnoff said if the title is clean, Monty’s shouldn’t have an issue assigning a lease that says only that the city shall not “unreasonably” withhold or delay authorization. But critics believe Sarnoff is determined to inject himself into the deal because of his very public issues with former Monty’s owner Stephen Kneapler, who sold his stake in the restaurant years ago but according to Florida corporate records keeps an office on site.
Kneapler continues to fight a lawsuit to stop a Dinner Key redevelopment project that Sarnoff championed, and he is also supporting a candidate running against Sarnoff’s wife for the term-limited commissioner’s seat.
“It is not personal,” said Sarnoff.
What the city should be worried about, Sarnoff said, is Monty’s shady history, including the conviction of original restaurant owner Monty Trainer on charges that he hid hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue, and a subsequent owner (Kneapler) who in 1977 was accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission of cooking the books of a Miami firm to make the business appear to be more profitable.
Sarnoff noted that Monty’s, which he sarcastically referred to as a “black hole,” is currently being audited by the city, has changed hands several times and that the lease has been repeatedly amended.
Reached Thursday by email, Christoph declined an interview. He wrote: “At this time I am glad the city commission fulfilled its obligation under the lease.”