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Manatee Habitat land ignites congressional campaign war of words

BRADENTON -- The billboard at Cortez Landings off 44th Avenue East has faded from the sun over the years.

Except for 11 single-family homes surrounding a cul-de-sac on the left after the entrance, the five-acre property, platted for 51 homes and owned by Manatee County Habitat for Humanity since 2009, remains empty.

But Jim Frame isn't deterred by the nonprofit's stalled project to build homes there for the needy.

Nor is the fact the property is presently appraised at one-third of what Habitat paid for it.

"The use we intended it for is as good today as it was four years ago," said the president of Habitat's board of directors. "It made sense when we bought it. It makes sense today."

That goal remains unchanged, he said, despite Cortez Landings becoming a campaign issue in the congressional race between Democrat challenger Keith Fitzgerald and Republican incumbent Vern Buchanan, whose fundraising and business practices have been the target of several investigations.

Habitat bought the five acres from the congressman's brother, Ed, for $1.4 million, putting down $400,000 and financing the rest. It is paying $50,000 interest-only payments annually to Cortez Landings LLC, among whose owners is Sandra Buchanan, the congressman's wife.

In July 2010, the Sarasota lawmaker also used the Habitat mortgage as collateral on a $3.875 million loan from Bank of America, documents with the Manatee Circuit Court show.

If Buchanan defaults on the loan, the bank would own Habitat's $1 million mortgage that comes due March 2014.

"It doesn't affect us, but we're already looking at our options," Frame said. "When that time comes, if we still have the property we'll refinance and go forward."

The Fitzgerald campaign used it to attack Buchanan, who learned Tuesday he would not face criminal charges from the Justice Department.

"Congressman Buchanan and those like him in Washington are what is wrong with the system. He ... is now involved in scandal for 'misleading' Habitat for Humanity in a questionable real estate deal," said Adam Scott, Keith Fitzgerald's campaign manager. "Corruption like this is fueling wasteful deficit spending. Congressman Buchanan still has not explained himself to voters and that is the standard he will be held to in November.

"The Suncoast deserves better representation than a congressman that the best that can be said about him is that the Justice Department 'will not bring any criminal charges.'"

Buchanan's staff fired back Wednesday.

"It is a disgrace Keith Fitzgerald and his partisan cronies would smear the good name of Habitat for Humanity just to sling mud at Vern Buchanan. Habitat for Humanity has refuted these false political attacks," said campaign manager Sally Tibbetts.

"This type of ugly smear is what people hate about Washington and why Fitzgerald is trailing by 20 points in the polls," she said.

Whoever owns the mortgage is irrelevant to Frame and Habitat.

"We could care less," he said. "We're making our payments every single month, so it doesn't matter who we're paying it to. It's common practice when another bank takes over a mortgage."

After being appraised at $1,253,340 in 2009 by the Manatee County Tax Appraiser's Office, Cortez Landings is presently appraised at $403,050.

"We know it's not worth what we paid for and the value has dropped, but anybody who owns property is in the same boat," Frame said.

Habitat has built 106 units -- homes and villas -- so far at three other projects: Village of the Palms and Washington Park in Palmetto and Hope Landings in Ellenton.

It had hoped to begin construction at Cortez Landings by now, but building infrastructure at Hope Landings has taken time -- and more money.

Habitat, which can build 12 to 13 homes a year in Manatee County, hopes to finish Hope Landings by 2015 or 2016.

"We feel an obligation to finish that project, and that was an influence on whether we started on Cortez Landings," Frame said. "If we got a $500,000 donation today, we could start on five homes there tomorrow."

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix.

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