Is the city of Apopka racist? That's the accusation made by Excel Development LLC, a black-owned company represented by attorney Juan Lynum, the son of Orlando city commissioner Daisy Lynum. On July 2, Excel Development filed a lawsuit that claimed, "`The` city has unlawfully discriminated in land use and permitting of development based on race."
The case centers on whether or not the city will require Excel to hook up to its sewer system, rather than relying on septic tanks, in exchange for the city providing its eight-unit affordable housing project with water.
On Feb. 5, Excel Development entered into an impact fee agreement with Apopka for the housing complex. The development is south of city limits, but Excel wants to use the city's water service. According to the agreement, Excel agreed to pay $4,063 for the water service. Developers paid $1,108 up front, and the city agreed to allow Excel to pay the $3,055 balance off in monthly installments of $254.
A month earlier, on Jan. 11, Excel had applied for an "onsite sewage disposal system" permit — septic tanks — with the Florida Department of Health. As part of that application, the company checked "no" on a box that asked if a sewer hookup was available.
According to the company's lawsuit, it received the septic tank permit. But the city of Apopka had other plans. On June 19, the city faxed Lynum a letter saying that, although Excel's development didn't fall inside city borders, it did fall within the city's utility service area, and any services divvied out in that area "would be provided in accordance with city codes and policies applicable throughout the city."
That echoed a letter the city sent on Feb. 28, in which it stated explicitly: "You will be required to connect to these city of Apopka utility systems."
In other words, no sewer connection, no water. And without water, there's no development.
But according to Lynum's complaint, the city's sewer line doesn't abut Excel's property, so Excel can't hook up to the sewer system — the city says the sewer line is 710 feet away — and that means the city is unconstitutionally infringing Excel's development rights by denying water to seven of its eight parcels.
"Only after receiving `Excel's` deposits and agreements and providing water to one lot did `the city` begin to demand that `Excel` connect to its sewer in lieu of septic tanks," an amended complaint in the lawsuit claims. Excel also claims that Apopka's city code dictates the city can only insist on sewer hookups for "facilities to be constructed within the city's corporate limits."
As such, the denial is "arbitrary and capricious government conduct," Lynum wrote in his complaint. If Excel has to connect to the sewer system, the complaint alleges, the project costs will increase by more than $100,000, thus killing the "viability of the project as an affordable housing project."
Excel's original complaint claimed that this controversy is racist, alleging that the city has no problem providing services for white developers.
Lynum didn't offer any evidence or support for that claim in the complaint, but Apopka — like many other small Southern towns — does have a history of racism.
In 1980, for instance, an Apopka resident sued to force the city to provide the same infrastructure in its black sections as in white ones. A judge ordered the city to improve its southern end, where most of its minorities live. At the same time, however, Apopka elected black city council members and appointed a black police chief before Orlando did, so making an unsupported claim about the city's racial views seems a stretch.
Excel apparently recognized that. In an amended complaint, filed Aug. 21, the company stripped most of the racial claims from its lawsuit.
(Apopka's permitting office directed phone calls to city attorney Frank Kruppenbacher, who in turn directed calls to John Conner, who is defending the case on the city's behalf. Conner did not return a phone call by press time. Lynum did not return a phone call or e-mail.)
On the other hand, Lynum seems to have a hair trigger when it comes to the accusation of racism. The same day he filed the amended complaint, news-talk station 580 WDBO-AM aired a story about the lawsuit, which led Excel and Lynum to issue a new batch of racism allegations, this time directed at the station and reporter Bob Hazen, who is white.
On Aug. 22, Lynum wrote a letter to WDBO (and copied it to The Pine Hills News, which posted the letter on its website under the headline, "Lynum responds to WDBO's race bait attack") threatening to sue for defamation, and alleging that, "In my opinion, WDBO-AM's actions are nothing short of a hate crime that incites racial tension through lies. … Your station is responsible for instigating racial tension in our community by publishing information that it knows or should have known to be false."
"To get a letter like that, it's pretty over the top," says WDBO general manager Susan Larkin.
Hazen's transgression? His story led listeners to believe that Lynum wasn't just Excel Development's lawyer, but also an owner. That allegedly defamed both the company and its attorney. "In my individual capacity, "Lynum wrote, "I demand that WDBO-AM retract the statement and issue an apology to me, individually, for publishing the false statements about my involvement. It is unfortunate that WDBO-AM would resort to fabricating a story without first substantiating it."
Except Lynum is, in fact, a manager of Excel Development LLC, at least according to records filed with the Florida Department of State's Division of Corporations. He failed to return repeated messages from WDBO seeking comment, the station says.
Lynum dropped the lawsuit threat after consulting with WDBO's attorneys. He got neither a retraction nor an apology. He did get one concession. "We agreed to not call him anymore," Larkin says. "He doesn't want us calling him."
These most recent incidents were the second and third times in little more than a year that Lynum has hurled charges of racism, then backed down after his charges went nowhere. The first was the widely publicized brouhaha that started in May 2006, when a white rookie Orlando police officer pulled Lynum over — in Parramore, in the middle of the night — for having a broken headlight. He later filed a complaint alleging racial profiling, and his mother led a cadre of black politicians in calling for Orlando Police Department Chief Michael McCoy's head. A month later, Lynum withdrew his complaint and McCoy stayed put.
Meanwhile, in Apopka, the fate of Excel's affordable housing development is tied up in the courts.[email protected]