By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Disgruntled homeowners have rejected a Bahamian attorney’s offer to settle the long-running Oceania Heights dispute, their president describing it as “absolutely nuts” on the grounds that it seeks to dump $2.76 million in liabilities on them.
Chris Fleming told Tribune Business that the Oceania Heights Property Owners Association’s Board had “completely and utterly rejected” the proposal by Anthony Thompson, who is also one of the project’s developers.
Mr Fleming, who has led the homeowners in their long-running battle with Mr Thompson and his fellow developer, Canadian citizen Howard Obront, told Tribune Business that the settlement agreement drafted by the attorney effectively left the homeowners with all the developers’ liabilities.
Asserting that Deputy Prime Minster Philip Davis, who has been attempting to mediate an agreement between the two sides, had told Mr Thompson not to do this, Mr Fleming said the homeowners again felt “abandoned” by the Government.
And, more ominously for the Bahamas, Mr Fleming indicated he was now going to push the US Embassy in Nassau to issue a so-called ‘investment warning’ on its website to warn Americans about the potential pitfalls associated with Bahamian real estate transactions.
And, suggesting that he and other Oceania Heights homeowners were now looking to tell their tale to the international media, Mr Fleming said: “We tried to do it by the book. Now, we’re certainly going to make sure people understand going to the Bahamas is a risk.”
None of which again bodes well for the Bahamas’ reputation as a secure, safe destination for foreign direct investment (FDI) and real estate purchases - the very lifeblood of this economy.
Indeed, Mr Thompson himself appears to anticipate the damage the dispute has - and may continue to do - to the Bahamas’ international investment reputation.
The proposed settlement allows Mr Davis to present it to other government agencies, for “giving assurances to local and international businesses, financial and investment communities, that the investment integrity of the said Commonwealth, particularly of the Exumas and the resort, is intact and robust”.
Exasperated that efforts to settle the dispute over the 40-acre, 125-lot Exuma-based real estate development project appear to have again hit an impasse, Mr Fleming told Tribune Business: “He [Mr Thompson] wants us to take over all these liabilities, and that’s exactly what the Deputy Prime Minister told him not to do, but he’s done it anyway.
“He wants us, the homeowners, to pay off his bills. It’s a ridiculous request. It’s a non-starter. It’s a joke. It’s absolutely nuts.
“It’s been rejected, completely and utterly rejected by the Board of the Homeowners Association, of which I am president. We feel at this stage that we’ve been abandoned by the Government.”
Telephone calls to Mr Thompson’s law office on Friday afternoon, seeking comment, went unanswered. An answer phone message went unreturned.
However, a copy of his proposed settlement, which has been seen by Tribune Business, agrees to transfer to the homeowners all the common areas, roadways and unsold lots (some 24).
The agreement also commits Mr Thompson to complete the conveyances for 18 homeowners who had paid the full purchase price but not received their documents, and passes to the Property Owners Association some $692,129 in unpaid maintenance fees.
But, in return, the proposal hands the burden of installing the remaining infrastructure at Oceania Heights to the homeowners, along with the contractual obligations previously belonging to Mr Thompson and the landholding firm, Oceania Heights.
And it also leaves the burden of paying $161,300 allegedly owed to five Oceania Heights staff, plus $6,000 in unpaid National Insurance Board (NIB) contributions, with the homeowners.
In addition, the document burdens the Oceania Heights Property Owners Association with paying the Stamp Duty on the 18 conveyances Mr Thompson is completing, and the “unpaid Stamp Duties and penalties alleged to have been remitted” to the attorney’s law firm but never passed on to the Government.
And, in return for taking over his multi-million dollar liabilities, Mr Thompson wants the Oceania Heights homeowners to indemnify him and his law firm from “any liability - whether legal or otherwise”.
An unimpressed Mr Fleming said of the Stamp Duty payments requirements: “After we paid well in excess of what these properties were worth, now he’s [Mr Thompson] having us take these responsibilities on, so we’re going to pay twice.
“He’s admitted that he required everyone use him as an attorney. He had an obligation to inform us in writing that he also owned the property, and he did not do that.”
That has been disputed by Mr Thompson, but his own proposed agreement confirms that, while also acting as Oceania Heights’ attorney, “investors were required by their respective agreements for sale for lots in the resort to engage the services” of his firm for the preparing and recording of title deeds.
In effect, Mr Thompson is admitting that he represented both sides in the same real estate transaction - and, in Oceania Heights’ case, multiple times.
And Mr Fleming suggested the proposed ‘settlement’ also contained an admission that he ‘fronted’ for Howard Obront and his wife, Donna, in creating Oceania Heights Development Company - the entity that would build homes at the Exuma project.
“Although Thompson was an officer, director and shareholder initially of Oceania Heights Development Company, the Obronts exclusively managed Oceania Heights Development Company and its operation, and derived virtually all benefits therefrom, whether financial,real or chose in action,” the proposal revealed.
“By the same token, the Obronts assumed all responsibility and liabilities of Oceania Heights Development Company and fully indemnified Thompson.”
Nor does Oceania Heights seem to be in the best health financially. A balance sheet of the ‘obligations’ Mr Thompson wants the homeowners to take on shows assets of $7.358 million, and liabilities totalling $2.755 million, for positive net worth of around $3.6 million.
However, Oceania Heights has no cash, and its main asset is the estimated $4.32 million value of the 24 unsold lots at the project, which are each valued at $200,000.
“Supposedly he’s giving is a property of value. Why should we take on those obligations,” Mr Fleming asked. “He should sell the property and pay those obligations.”
While praising Mr Davis and Pedro Rolle, the Exuma Chamber of Commerce’s president, for their attempts to mediate a solution, Mr Fleming added: “We are completely frustrated. Our hopes have been completely devastated.
“We thought the Government, through the DMP, was going to work something out to the satisfaction of everyone. That is not going to happen.
“I’ve spent $6.5 million constructing my home. I’m not going back this year. We have no water and no one trying to make the resort better.”
Mr Fleming said the existing properties at Oceania Heights, and the project itself, were falling into a state of disrepair as a result of the ongoing dispute.
The water system was turned off, and with “people thinking the resort is abandoned”, some homes were being broken into. One, Mr Fleming said, had been raided last week.