Failed development bid turns into auction sale

mjohnson@bradenton.comJune 12, 2014 

MANATEE -- Eight hundred twenty-four acres of agricultural land purchased during the runup to the housing crash for a 1,719-home development is going on the auction block this month after a break in the deal sent the land into bankruptcy court.

The land, formerly known as Sweetwater Preserve, fronts about 2 miles of the west side of Interstate 75 between Buckeye Road and the county's northern borderline. The site plan for the proposed mixed housing and commercial development project won preliminary approval from Manatee County in 2010. However, neither the developer nor the property owner ever started work.

The company that owns the land, Clearwater-based Chamax LLC, filed for bankruptcy on New Year's Eve 2013. The company is whol

ly owned by land investor R. Tom Chapman.

If a bankruptcy court approves the outcome of the June 24 auction, the acreage's future is wide open. It is part of the North County Gateway Overlay District, a zone added to Manatee County's comprehensive plan to encourage industrial and other land uses benefitting nearby Port Manatee. Although a landowner could still use the soon-to-be auctioned property for housing, one local developer and county planning officials say the former dairy grassland, far from well-developed roads and municipal services, might be best for something else.

Manatee County homebuilder and developer Pat Neal said he will not be bidding in the auction, even though he has been buying a lot of land and building communities in the northern part of the county. One of those communities, the Villages of Amazon South, is within a few miles of an Amazon distribution center under construction north of Parrish.

The former Sweetwater site, Neal said, is too remote to be practical for a housing development that will need municipal services.

"Most folks are concerned about trying to locate their properties closer town and to existing services," he said.

The area's expected future as a center of industrial development could be another problem for anyone wanting to build houses on the site.

"You don't want a situation where you have large trucks mixing it up with soccer moms," said Miles Gentry, a senior planner with Manatee County who was involved with Sweetwater Preserve's preliminary approval four years ago.

Even with the trucks and without proximity to services, the land may end up being a good deal. David Bradshaw, president of the firm auctioning the property, Ocala-based Tranzon Driggers, said "developers, savvy land bankers or anyone wanting to leverage off the Amazon distribution facility" might be willing to pay seven or eight figures for the land. Sealed bids for the auction are due June 20.

The Sweetwater Preserve development property has been tied up in court. Chamax bought the land in early 2004 from Reeder Ranch & Dairy, according to county property records. The selling price was $14.9 million.

The bankruptcy is just the latest legal entanglement for the property and its developers. Disagreements over the land go back to 2005.

Early that year, Chamax entered into a purchase agreement with St. Petersburg-based Lerian Corp. intended to begin the development process, according records on file with Florida's Second District Court of Appeals. Lerian assigned its purchase agreement to another entity, the Buckeye Road Trust, and tasked the trust to develop the property. Lerian owner Richard Neff was the original trustee in charge. Later, J. Robert Brown became the trustee.

The trust failed to obtain the zoning needed to develop the property and subsequently terminated its purchase agreement. Chamax sued the trust for breaching the agreement. The trust filed a counterclaim.

Eventually, Brown, Lerian and the trust won in 2012, when they sued Chamax for damages and attorney fees related to an alleged breach of contract. They were awarded more than $2.7 million by the 10th Circuit Court in Polk County, according to court records.

David Bacon, Chapman's personal attorney, said the land needs to be sold to pay off mortgager BB&T, the 2012 court award and other creditors. The first mortgage on the property came due at the end of last year. Chamax, which is wholly owned by Chapman, has been looking for a buyer, but has been unable to sell the property in a market that declined greatly since the Sweetwater purchase.

Bacon said Chamax is still looking for a buyer in the traditional real estate market, even as the bankruptcy auction looms.

Attorneys representing Brown did not answer a request to comment on the legal actions.

A live best and final auction for the property will be held in the Tampa law office of Stichter, Riedel, Blain & Prosser at 11 a.m. June 24. The firm represents Chamax.

Auction information for the Sweetwater property is online at tranzon.com/DG802.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.

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