Vero Isles residents seek deal with city in canal dispute

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The Vero Beach City Council seems ready to make a deal to end complaints from Vero Isles property owners regarding rights and responsibilities for the submerged lands in canals in back of their homes.

Almost all of the upscale, single-family homes in Vero Isles have some sort of dock, and since the community was developed in the 1960s, those aging docks need to be replaced or remodeled from time to time.

When homeowners need a permit from the city to do the dock work, City Attorney John Turner said, Vero has them sign a license agreement governing the canal bottom under the dock area.

Residents say those agreements are lopsided in favor of the city, that the city has only selectively enforced the license agreement requirement, and that the agreement could cause problems for owners when they sell their homes.

“The license introduces new obligations/burdens on Vero Isles owners, but offers no new benefits in exchange,” stated a summary of concerns sent to the city from property owners.
Unlike other submerged lands such as the Indian River Lagoon, which are regulated by the State of Florida, the man-made, dead-end canals in Vero Isles are city territory. The city built the canals and owns the submerged land.

Property owners, in correspondence with city officials, say the liability and maintenance requirements connected to dock permits don’t seem fair, and that the terms of the license agreement could affect their property values, or even make their homes tougher to sell. After more than a year of trying to rectify the situation, they’ve hired an attorney to help get some results.

Turner told the council on Feb. 2 that Vero Isles residents and their attorney, C. Douglas Vitunac of the Collins Brown Barkett law firm, want to sit down with council members individually to discuss their concerns.

Vitunac, who is the son of former city attorney Charlie Vitunac, wrote to city officials on Jan. 12 to say that, despite good-faith efforts by both the Vero Isles residents and city staff, “outstanding issues and objections to the license form remain,” adding that the property owners would be seeking a legislative or executive solution.”

Mayor Robbie Brackett directed staff to place an item on a future council agenda to hammer out a solution. Turner said he would try to get a better idea of exactly what the property owners want and go from there.

As a side issue, residents have also complained that live-aboards anchor in the canals and use dinghies to tie up on association-maintained land to shop at the nearby Publix on Miracle Mile. The center of the canals must not be blocked, but instead must be left as “fairway” for boaters, City Manager Monte Falls told the council.

Councilman Joe Graves asked the staff to give its recommendations on transferring ownership of the submerged lands to the property owners, so the city does not have to maintain the canals. He said from his initial research into the matter, that seemed like a smart move for the city that would save staff time and money.

“My position is that we should deed it over to the homeowner,” Graves said. “If [owning the canals] doesn’t raise any revenue for the city and it’s of no benefit to the city, I think there should be a hearing on whether we want to deed those submerged lands and give those riparian rights to the individual homeowners in Vero Isles.”

Falls pointed out one challenge to working out a solution with the property owners: Vero Isles does not have the typical formal property owners association mandated by deed restriction, but instead operates via a voluntary POA.

“Legally, the informal POA cannot speak for the whole group, but we can certainly talk to them,” Falls said. “They have been active in the community and making decisions and get a feel for where they are.”

Councilwoman Honey Minuse, who lived in Vero Isles for many years but is no longer a resident, said she was president of the POA for nine and a half years and that the community has about 80 percent voluntary participation in the association, and 100 percent voluntary participation when it comes to paying for common expenses. “People there live as good neighbors, it’s wonderful. It really is.”

Brackett said he wants the matter brought to council “no later than March” so it doesn’t drag on any longer than necessary.

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