River Park neighborhood, out of money, drops lawsuit against city on 7-Eleven project

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Joseph Cranney , joey.cranney@naplesnews.com; 239-213-6035 Published 1:32 p.m. ET March 20, 2017 | Updated 3 hours ago

A federal lawsuit filed against the city of Naples by a group of residents was dismissed Monday, ending the litigation over the City Council's approval last year of the 7-Eleven project planned near the River Park neighborhood.

U.S. Judge John E. Steel granted the request to dismiss the case from the 22 River Park residents who sued the city last summer.

The residents claimed the convenience store and gas station planned near their low-income neighborhood would violate their civil rights under the 1968 Fair Housing Act. The group's lawyer, Mimi Wolok, said the legal fees for the suit became too expensive for the neighborhood.

"They ran out of money," she said.

She declined to disclose how much she was paid. Curtis Williams, a River Park plaintiff, also declined to discuss Wolok’s legal fees.

Willie Anthony, a plaintiff and longtime River Park activist, said the case could have cost the neighborhood more than $100,000 in legal fees if it proceeded.

The residents also claimed in their lawsuit that Councilman Sam Saad violated ethics laws when he joined the majority of the council to approve the project in a 4-3 vote last May.

The residents in court papers last month cited reporting from the Naples Daily News. Saad is a longtime business partner with Matt Pikus, the broker and property manager for the New York-based real estate investment group that sold the property to 7-Eleven, the Daily News reported in November.

Saad’s law firm also did legal work for the group before and after he voted to approve their contract to sell to 7-Eleven, the Daily News reported.

Saad has denied that there was a conflict of interest.

“I didn’t violate the ethics ordinance,” he told the Daily News last month, adding that the plaintiffs’ claims had “no merit.”

The project is planned for the intersection of Goodlette-Frank Road and Fifth Avenue North. Demolition crews cleared the site last month.

It’s not clear when construction will begin on the new 3,000-square-foot building with four gas pumps. Chip Gilkes, a real estate representative for 7-Eleven who previously met with River Park residents, referred questions to 7-Eleven’s press office, which didn’t return messages.

Anthony said an influx of traffic from the project is still a safety concern for the neighborhood. River Park children regularly cross the street at Goodlette-Frank Road to walk to school. The project also plans to send traffic across Fifth Avenue North, a residential street.

“What’s going to happen when something happens?” Anthony said. “You’ve got all those cars coming in. You’ve got all those people trying to get out of the store. It’s going to be a cluster — you know what.”

Mayor Bill Barnett, who cast a tie-breaking vote in the council’s approval of the project, said he thinks the neighborhood can come to accept the project. He noted that the convenience store chain already agreed to reduce the number of gas pumps at the site from six pumps to four.

7-Eleven also agreed to install a River Park neighborhood entrance sign near the project.

“I think it’s going to be a great spot for 7-Eleven,” Barnett said. “I think they can all be good neighbors. Time will tell, obviously. But it doesn’t do anybody any good to squawk about it — because 7-Eleven has their permits in hand, and I’m sure they’re probably ready to start building.”