Vernon dispute could restrict residents’ access to Sportsplex

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VERNON, Fla. — A property lease disagreement is becoming the talk of Vernon, as one property owner says the city did not fulfill the terms of their lease agreement with him.

23 years ago, the City of Vernon made an agreement with the Harris family to lease a portion of their Vernon property to the city.

“They signed it for 25 years at a dollar a year,” said James Harris, the current owner of the property, which is a small section of parking lot adjacent to the Vernon Sportsplex.

The city leases the land to allow for public traffic to use it to enter the Sportsplex property, but now, there’s a problem.

“Vernon has never paid anything on the property,” said Harris on Friday. “They’ve been allowed to use it at no charge.”

When Harris brought this to the attention of city officials, they paid the full amount of the rent, but Harris sent the check back saying he’s terminated the current lease. 

“Too little too late,” he said. “22 and a half years later.”

Harris is demanding the city pay a more expensive rent to continue using his property, or exchange this land for a nearby parcel and one thousand dollars, something he says he’s been trying to negotiate for years for no added cost.

“Everytime I came up with something, they’d shoot it down,” he said. 

Now, Harris is drawing the line, literally.

He had a land surveyor paint a bright orange mark along his property line, and if he and the city are not able to come to an agreement by the end of January, he said he’ll likely be putting a fence up along the line, blocking public access to the Sportsplex.

“My problem is not with the kids,” he said. “My problem is with the City Council of Vernon.”

City officials declined our request for an interview, providing their attorney’s letter to Harris instead. The letter states Harris does not have the right to terminate the lease and forfeit the city’s interest.

City Attorney Michelle Blankenship Jordan’s letter says if Harris restricts access to the parcel, the city will be entitled to sue him for damages for wrongful eviction.

Despite the warning, city officials say they wish to resolve this in a friendly way.

Harris said he’s ready to bring it to court.”I’m not an attorney,” he said. “But I certainly have some good ones to work with.”

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