NewsChannel Seven Investigation

A local attorney is accusing two Laguna Beach property owners and political activists of trying to force a developer to pay them an outrageous price for their homes.

If he did pay, then they'd stop making legal trouble for his high-rise condo project.

It's a simple, yet complicated case of "he said, she said." On the surface it sounds like a simple story.

Two people offer to sell their homes to a developer for inflated prices. In exchange, they agree not to oppose any of the developer's projects. That's the claims made by local attorney Nevin Zimmerman.

Zimmerman represents developer Mark Todd. Todd is the man who's trying to buy the land for the Mayan Resort, a high rise condominium project on the west end of the beaches.

Here's where the story gets a bit complicated. Back in August, Bay County officials issued a permit for Todd to build the Mayan. But in September, the project was challenged by several groups, which include in two individuals, former county commission candidate Diane Brown and Brenda Harrison.

Zimmerman claims both women offered to drop their challenges, if Todd bought their homes from them.

He says Harrison offered to sell her Lake Drive home to Todd for two and a half million dollars, and Diane Brown offered to sell her Twin Lakes Drive home to Todd for $1.1 million. Both offers were massively over-priced.

When the deals didn't materialize, Zimmerman claims Brown and Harrison moved ahead with their legal challenges against the Mayan.

Several weeks ago a judge threw out the lawsuit, saying there were too many problems with it, but gave Gainesville attorney David Russ a chance to amend and re-file the lawsuit.

If Russ re-files the suit for the two women, Zimmerman says he's prepared to file a motion asking the courts to dismiss on the grounds that it's what's called a "sham pleading", in another words, it's being filed under fraudulent circumstances.

NewsChannel Seven spoke to both Diane Brown and Brenda Harrison by telephone. Both say they've received a number of offers for their homes. Both say they never initiated these particular offers.

Both say if they actually received the amount Todd was offering, they probably would have sold. But they say this particular action is nothing more than an effort to intimidate them into dropping their challenge to the Mayan project, and to discredit them personally.

Even so, Zimmerman has some potent ammunition. He has sworn affidavits from two real estate brokers who claim Brenda Harrison herself wrote this real estate contract for her home for two and a half million dollars.

Both agents claim Harrison said "if you want me to stop what I'm doing concerning high rises and working with Diane Brown it's going to cost you $100,000 cash in hand."

Harrison admits to the meeting, but says she doesn't remember writing her own contract.

Zimmerman also has several different drafts of a contract for Brown's home which include clauses saying Brown will back-off of her opposition against any Bay County projects involving Todd.

Brown says she never took the offer seriously, because she claims Todd has a history of not following through on his offers.

We asked both Brown and Harrison for on-camera interviews. Harrison agreed to fax a statement but we never received it. Brown referred us to her Gainesville attorney David Russ. Russ has not returned our calls.

Friday Bay County's attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the legal challenge to the Mayan project, because David Russ missed the November 28 court ordered deadline for re-filing.

The judge should schedule a hearing within a few weeks to make that decision. If it is dismissed, Mark Todd would be able to move ahead with the construction of the Mayan Resort Condominium on Front Beach Road at the west end of the local beaches.


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