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Ownership Transfer Proposed For Strife Torn Oceania Project

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

Oceania Heights’ developers are proposing to transfer control to a homeowners association, prompting a key player in the negotiations to yesterday say he was “more hopeful than ever” that a solution for the controversy-torn project is in sight.

Pedro Rolle, the Exuma Chamber of Commerce’s president, confirmed to Tribune Business he had received a letter from Anthony Thompson, Oceania Heights’ president, setting out the framework for transferring control of the project’s common areas and key amenities to the Oceania Heights Property Owners Association by June 30, 2013..

The April 19, 2013, letter, which has been obtained by Tribune Business, said the Association’s name had been reserved, and its ‘draft’ Memorandum and Articles of Association drawn up.

Mr Thompson wrote: “A conveyance has been prepared whereby Oceania Heights is conveying to Oceania Heights Property Owners Association common areas in the resort, and the lots reserved for amenities such as clubhouse, tennis court, restaurant and swimming pool (the location of which is being determined).”

The Bahamian attorney added that a declaration dealing with share ownership in the Association; easements; the assessment of common area maintenance fees; and security and accounting issues, had also been prepared.

Mr Thompson’s letter drew a cautious welcome from both Mr Rolle and key Oceania Heights homeowners spoken to by Tribune Business yesterday.

The Exuma Chamber of Commerce chief said the organisation was pushing to get the dispute resolved so that there was “no longer any stigma” attached to the island.

Suggesting that this was causing potential harm to the island’s economy, and reducing its attraction for foreign direct investment (FDI), Mr Rolle said he was more optimistic now than when negotiations started that an outcome acceptable to all could be reached.

And Chris Fleming, one of the more prominent homeowners involved in the Oceania Heights dispute, said of Mr Thompson’s proposal: “I think it’s a good first step. It’s a significant move in the negotiations, and we just need to continue to push it forward.

“I believe it’s positive, and we will continue to work with the Deputy Prime Minister and Pedro and all the parties involved. We hope to make it a positive outcome.”

Mr Fleming added: “It’s been a long road, but I’m pretty optimistic. I can see from Mr Thompson’s letters that the Deputy Prime Minister is putting a lot of pressure on him.

“The US and Canadian governments are very active in looking for this to be resolved, and I think the Deputy Prime Minister will see this through to the bitter end. Pedro has been just magical.”

The parties to the Oceania Heights dispute have been inching towards resolution after Philip Davis, the deputy prime minister, intervened and brought them together for an initial meeting earlier this year.

That meeting was largely prompted by numerous Tribune Business articles covering the dispute, this newspaper having exclusively revealed the tensions at the Exuma-based project - and the potential damage it was doing to the Bahamas’ investment reputation - as far back as February 2012.

Mr Davis has subsequently met several times with Oceania Heights’ principals and their attorneys as efforts to craft a solution kicked into high gear. Mr Thompson is being represented by Keod Smith, while his fellow principal,Canadian citizen Howard Obront, is being looked after by J. Henry Bostwick QC and his son, John.

The main complaints of Oceania Heights homeowners are that they have been unable to obtain title/conveyancing documents to the properties they have bought; there are questions whether more than $880,000 in Stamp Tax they paid has been passed on to the Treasury; Mr Thompson failed to disclose he was also a beneficial owner of Oceania Heights when acting for the buyers in their purchases; the same lots have been sold to different buyers; and the hotel and other promised amenities have not been constructed. All this has been denied by Messrs Thompson and Obront

Emphasising that no solution had been fully agreed to by all, Mr Rolle yesterday described the homeowners association proposals as being in “the embryonic stages”.

Depending on the reaction from Oceania Heights property owners, the Exuma Chamber head said if they were in favour it would be then be possible to sit down with the developers and work out the fine details.

Mr Rolle added of Mr Thompson: “He has been most co-operative in attempting to work with us in seeing how we can transfer the ownership to the homeowners group.

“He has been working, and has not put any roadblocks in our way at this point.”

While the upcoming Exuma Regatta will likely cause a temporary pause in negotiations, Mr Rolle said Mr Thompson had passed to him conveyancing documents for 38 sales at Oceania Heights. He was now poised to deliver them to the owners involved.

Mr Thompson, meanwhile, in his April 19 letter, said Oceania Heights was looking to have the 11 lots that were the subject of a recent Privy Council judgment conveyed to it.

“All the remaining lots available for sale, including the 11, will be offered for sale, and the proceeds used to meet the liabilities of Oceania Heights and to install the amenities to the satisfaction of the property owners,” Mr Thompson wrote.

He did not specify the “liabilities” he was referring to, although Oceania Heights has to compensate the Bahamians who purchased those 11 lots from a previous owner, as per the Privy Council judgment.

It is also unclear whether those ‘liabilities’ include Stamp Duty payable to the Treasury on previous lot sales. Numerous Oceania Heights homeowners have alleged the due taxes were paid to Mr Thompson, but never passed on to the Government.

Mr Rolle, though, told Tribune Business that he had a proposal “that can fly, if it’s accepted”, which deals with the allegedly unpaid Stamp Duty and demands of some homeowners to be refunded their entire purchase price.

Asked how critical it was to resolve the Oceania Heights dispute, Mr Rolle told Tribune Business: “We have invested, at the Chamber, a lot of time in this thing, particularly because it’s very important for Exuma.

“We are tired of hearing, every time Exuma is mentioned with respect to foreign direct investment - at least it seems this way - that somehow Oceania Heights is mentioned, and it’s a negative thing for Exuma.

“It makes it appear that Exuma is a terrible place to come. It impacts not just real estate, but taxi drivers and straw vendors. We want to get this resolved so that no longer is a stigma attached to Exuma.”

Mr Rolle added: “We are confident there’ll be a certain level of resolution. Will everyone’s recovery be 100 per cent? I doubt it, but they will get some level of resolution.

“I am confident that most of the home owners are already aware that they’re not going to receive total satisfaction, but most will be happy if they get a certain level of satisfaction.

“I am more hopeful now than I had been when this whole process started.”

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