Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Ponte Vedra Recorder: The House That Jim Built

Sara Kaufman | July 30, 2010 | 22 Comments

In March 2005 Cynthia Beckwith purchased two plots of land in Vilano Beach for a total of $215,000 at a time when similar lots were being sold for more than $250,000 apiece.

The same day she signed the deed on the properties, she sold one of them to another buyer for $215,000 — essentially getting her a lot at no cost.

Five months later she married then County Commissioner Jim Bryant, who is now campaigning to return to the commission as the District 4 representative.

Bryant, who served as a commissioner from 1996 until 2008, lives with his wife in a house built on the lot she essentially got for free.

The Property

In November 2002, an application for zoning change for the land located at 166 Oak Avenue in Vilano Beach was filed with St. Johns County. The project name was North River Island and the applicant, Mark Ambach of Ponte Vedra, requested the zoning classification be changed from commercial highway and tourist to residential single family. According to the application for rezoning, the present use of the property was listed as "vacant, unfinished marina" and an attachment to the application for rezoning states, "the site was designated and approved for a marina but the marina project failed. The use proposed is compatible with the residential characteristics of the surrounding neighborhoods and is consistent with the comprehensive plan designation of Residential - Density C."

The firm of Pappas, Metcalf, Jenks and Miller P.A. was listed as the contact for the rezoning application.

The Developer

Mark Ambach, John Kenny and John Deneen formed North River Island LLC, which they filed as a LLC in the state of Florida on Feb. 27, 2003.

On March 4, 2003 Pappas, Metcalf, Jenks and Miller P.A. on behalf of the Barco Family Trust, then owners of the land in question, presented an application for rezoning to the commission.

As chairman of the commission, Bryant signed Ordinance 2003-15, designating the property residential single family — the rezoning became effective March 10, 2003.

The Woman

Bryant said his marriage to Lisa Lee Bryant went south long before the official January 2005 dissolution date. He said Cynthia Beckwith was an old friend from pharmacy school who he reconnected with in 2003 at a conference.

Bryant and Beckwith began planning for a life together, which they hoped to begin once Bryant got divorced. At the time, theirs was a long distance relationship. Bryant remained in St. Augustine and Beckwith lived in De Leon Springs.

According to Bryant, Beckwith wanted to relocate to St. Johns County and was looking to purchase property where they could eventually build a home together. He told The Recorder he was helping Beckwith shop for property at the time.

The Deal Opens

Beckwith signed a contract to purchase two plots of land (labeled lots 4 and 6) from Mark Ambach for $215,000. The contract was dated June 16, 2003.

According to Bryant, he was approached by Ambach regarding property Ambach had recently acquired and was looking to sell.

Listed in the contract Beckwith signed with Ambach were two conditions — the first was that the sale would not close until after July 1, 2004. The second condition was that it was understood that the buildable area in lot 6 was very limited and might not accommodate a house.

Bryant said a survey map provided by Ambach prior to placing the lots under contract

showed the buildable area on lot six was compromised by wetlands. He said he was under the impression that they would not be able to build on the lot.

He also said he and Beckwith continued to look at other property even though she had contracted to buy the two lots from Ambach.

The Final Plat

In July 2003, weeks after the Ambach contracted to sell the lots to Beckwith, North River Island LLC purchased portions of the rezoned land for $4.7 million from the Barco Family Trust.

Bryant and Beckwith were married in August 2005.

The final plat for North River Island was not approved until August 26, 2003 with the adoption of Resolution 2003-159. At the time of the vote to approve the plat, Bryant was chairman of the commission.

The Donation

On November 3, 2004 the commission, with Bryant representing District 5, adopted Resolution 2004-328, accepting the donation of park and conservation land from North River Island LLC. Included in this dedication were lots directly behind and adjacent to the lots Beckwith had under contract.

The Deal Closes

On Jan. 7, 2005, John Kenny Construction Company (Kenny is one of the partners in North River Island LLC) sold "Lot 2, Block CC, Unit "A" Surfside" to Jim and Nancy McFauls for $250,000.

On March 7, 2005, Beckwith’s purchase of lots 4 and 6, the contracted land from North River Island LLC, closed for $215,000.

On the same day, Beckwith sold one of the lots (lot 6) to J-Mac Construction for the same price she’d just paid for both lots — $215,000 — which meant she’d essentially paid nothing for lot 4.

McFaul, who had two months before purchased lot 2, owns J-Mac Construction.

The Missed Connections

Bryant said he was not aware of the connection between Ambach and North River Island LLC at the time Beckwith purchased of the land.

"I would say that there was no shady part on our actions," he said. "It wasn’t orchestrated on my part."

Bryant said he was surprised when The Recorder showed him the connections between Ambach, North River Island LLC, Kenny, J-Mac Construction and the McFauls. He said he had no idea how the deal to sell lot 6 to J-Mac was arranged.

"It happened so fast. I assumed it was on the up and up," he said.

The Law

Florida statutes governing standards of conduct for public officials say public officials should exercise care anytime they accept something of value.

Should Bryant have known that Mark Ambach and John Kenney were affiliated with North River Island LLC and that the deal that resulted in Beckwith getting lot 4 for free involved another company that had done business with the developers?

A 1980 advisory opinion from the Florida Commission on Ethics indicates the law places the burden on public officials "to exercise reasonable care in determining whether a particular payment or thing of value has been given with the internet to influence his official action."

It further states that "assuming the donor is in a position to be benefited by the officer’s or employee’s action, the officer should weigh the value of the thing received against the ostensible purposed for its being given. The larger its value, the more difficult it should be to justify its being given for any reason except to influence."

St. Johns County spokeswoman Karen Pan said County Attorney Patrick McCormack hosts a training session for commissioners that is designed to help them better understand the state’s ethics laws, among other things. In addition, Pan said, commissioners can go through in-depth training through the Florida Association of Counties at their discretion.

Former state attorney John Tanner, when told the facts contained in this story but not the names of the parties involved, said, "There are questionable circumstances that could have been avoided with perhaps a more diligent inquiry into the parties."

Tanner added that whether the commissioner knew or not may be moot. He said that under current laws he wasn’t sure he could be "tagged" with another person’s actions — not his spouse at the time — even though later he benefited from it.

If Beckwith had stopped seeing Bryant after she purchase the lots and sold one of them to J-Mac, but before she and Bryant were married, Bryant might not have received any benefit from the land deal.

But as things turned out, Beckwith, who is now Cynthia Bryant, has spent the past several years living with Bryant in a 2,955 square foot house they built on lot 4. The house is currently for sale, listed at $999,000, according to an MLS listing on Yahoo Real Estate.

Bryant is also renting a home in Ponte Vedra Beach to qualify as a resident of District 4, and plans to relocate here if he wins the primary election Aug.24.


(904)285-8831 ext. 16

Reporter Shane Griffis contributed to this report.

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