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From Beirut to Bulldog Drive: Palm Coast’s Uncivil War Over Gus Ajram’s Property Rights

| September 29, 2010

gus ajram bulldog drive palm coast jim landon eminent domain

'Since I encountered this problem in Palm Coast I feel like I don’t belong here,' Gus Ajrma says of his battle with the city over his properties on Bulldog Drive. (© FlaglerLive)

At the time of the Black Saturday massacre Gus Ajram was a 16-year-old Greek Orthodox Christian boy working the night shift at the Beirut port, in the early days of the Lebanese civil war. His religion was relevant, at least then. It’s what kept him from taking a bullet to the head when, that winter day in 1976, Christian militias went into a bloodletting frenzy over the killing of one of their own as they took to the streets of the city and executed anyone they identified as a Muslim. Hundreds were killed.

“That Saturday, I’m walking out of the office to go down to the port,” Ajram remembers, “I looked in there, I see this guy taking two guys, bam, bam, shooting them. They were nuts those guys. What’s your name? Mohammed. Bam.”

Mohammed being a Muslim name, all that was necessary to seal a man’s death.

“I see that, I said holy shit.” Eleven of Ajram’s colleagues at the Christian-controlled Beirut port were Muslim. He managed to sneak them into the office, where the building’s landlord told him: “Come on, stick six, seven in the car, as much as Mustafa’s car can take, and run them to the Muslim border,” what was then the demarcation line between east and West Beirut, not far off. “Drop them off and come back. I got the first batch, the second batch, the third batch was Ali,” Ajram recalls. “I’m coming with him down the stairs and looking and they grabbed him. I’m fighting—I’ll never forget his name: George Saliba, big guy—told him, George, that’s my friend, leave him the fuck alone—in Arabic, you know, cussing up a storm. He grabbed him, whipped him. I grabbed Ali, hugged him like this, he put a bullet in back of his head. A piece of his brain hit my head. That’s when I lost it. Honestly, I lost it.”

The next day Ajram’s father put him on a plane to Kuwait, where his father had worked years before and where Ajram had spent his first five years. That was it for his years in Lebanon. He worked for a freight company in Kuwait City for four years until tanks, checkpoints and soldiers appeared on the capital city’s streets, just as they had in Beirut, as rumors flew that Iraq’s Saddam was about to invade Kuwait. The rumors were a decade too early (Saddam attacked Iran instead). Ajram hadn’t escaped Beirut’s gun-ridden streets to face them again in Kuwait. He left for Queens, N.Y., and filed for political asylum. His application was denied in 1982, when the Lebanese president was telling President Reagan that the war was over, all nationals should be able to come home. It wasn’t, but there was the letter from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, booting Ajram out.

“I just ignored it, because my wedding to Colleen was the next day,” Ajram said of his wife of 28 years, whom he’d met at a Lebanese friend’s Ossining, N.Y. deli where he used to help out. They married. Raised four children (two boys, two girls, 26, 24, 22 and almost 20), launched several automotive businesses in New York City’s distant northern suburbs, and got rich, not quite in that order. Ajram, a compulsive worker, would put in 18-hour days running his shops and attending school at night. It was no coincidence that in 1987, on the strength of a $180,000 loan, he moved into his biggest shop, at 680 Highland Avenue in Peekskill, N.Y. (at the intersection with Liberty St.) on Christmas Eve. “I didn’t know the difference. Christmas Eve. New Year’s, I was working. I didn’t care,” Ajram says. He was open seven days a week from 5 a.m. to midnight. “After I took this big place, boom, boom, I mean, cash I didn’t know what to do with.”

It wasn’t all plums, of course. He barely saw his children growing up. A year earlier, his mother was killed in a colossal car bomb in the Beirut neighborhood of Sin el Fil. “My father lost it. He turned to the bottle 24/7.” And did so in the Ajrams’ home in new York, where he’d moved in after his wife’s murder. He would die, still drinking, during a visit to Lebanon in 1997, when he slipped on a rock at the beach, cracked his skull in the surf and drowned. By then the Ajrams’ life had changed radically, too. The winter of 1991 was a hell of blizzards. Ajram’s two-truck drivers wouldn’t show. He was pulling 72-hour stints, working the shop, pulling people out of ditches. One night he came home. His wife was breast-feeding Mitchell, their youngest. He’d had enough. “I told her pack up, we’re going to Florida.”

Actually it took more than two years to settle up in new York, but by 1994, they were in Palm Coast, where the rest is not quite, not yet, history.

The distance between Beirut and Bulldog Drive in Palm Coast is 6,410 miles. Gus Ajram hasn’t traveled it or the many places in between in a 50-year journey through violence and hardship—and great fortune—to compromise the life and business he’s built here over 33 feet of real estate. That’s the width of land, his land, that Palm Coast wants condemn along Bulldog Drive. The land is part of two larger properties Ajram has owned since 1996, and that the city wants to buy from Ajram to build a wide, grand entrance to its Town Center development.

The city won’t pay Ajram’s $1.25 million price. It’s offering a third of that, though that’s not the only issue. Ajram’s businesses are. He runs automotive businesses, or leases his properties to people who do. The city doesn’t want that sort of business along Bulldog Drive. It’s not spiffy enough for its idea of a grand entrance. It spent years denying Ajram an occupational license for a dealership there. It’s spent years trying to get him out of there, refusing to move him back a few feet onto land the city owns behind Ajram’s property, to accommodate the widening, or to encroach on the other side of Bulldog Drive, where a concrete rink and a metal-building youth center would not have been difficult to move, either.

It’s not that Ajram is not willing to leave at the right price. But he knows the value of his property, at one of town’s most desirable intersections, and he knows what the city has paid adjoining property owners—four, five and nearly six times appraised market values, while offering him less than twice that of his properties. And he knows what he could make of his property.

Ajram recalls a 2008 meeting with City Manager Jim Landon: “Landon offered me $850,000 plus keeping the property for two years, collect rent. I told him I don’t want to leave. It’s the best location ever, for me. You own the property behind me. Move me back. I don’t mind being behind the pond you want to put in. He said no way. There’s no automotive, he said. Will never be automotive there. I said what’s wrong with automotive, especially the way I run it? So I refused the offer. He takes his finger, put it between my eyes, and said, ‘You’re naïve if you think you can use your property.’”

Rather than meet Ajram’s demand, the city is going the route of eminent domain on that 33-foot sliver instead, the 33 feet it needs for the widening of the road. Downplaying the notoriously high costs, bad publicity and lengthy delays entailed by eminent domain actions—courts are backed up, they’re not likely to move fast—Landon argued to the Palm Coast City Council last week that it was the best way to move ahead with the project.

“When they said they were going to declare eminent domain, I felt like I took a  breath for the first time in about nine years, like finally they’ve taken a stance,” Ajram’s wife Colleen says. “I understand that there’s bigger issues to come and more battles ahead, but at least it’s clear where we’re going, instead of the offer we refused and then everything is a stalemate.” Battles have been an integral part of Colleen’s life. This is one more. “One day at a time,” she says. “One issue at a time. You work your way through it. You have to. If you take everything on at once you’ll never see any light at the end of the tunnel.”

Gus’ children are doing everything but their father’s trade. One is a market analyst in Vietnam. Another is a forensic accountant. Another is finishing college, studying business and education to be a principal. The youngest is studying civil engineering. “They hate the business. I’m serious. They see me what I go through,” Ajram says.

“Mitchell doesn’t hate it. He’s thinking about it,” Colleen says.

“They hate it for the hours I put and the fights I put up to correct the image of this business.” These days, after running businesses in Palm Coast and Edgewater (where a 7/11 just signed a long-term lease to fill his property there), Ajram’s GEA Auto Sales is operating on U.S. 1 in Bunnell. “Took me 13 minutes exactly in the county to get the occupational license here,” he says. “Second day I was in business. With the city, nine years. It’s hard.”

To Ajram, Palm Coast never had any intention of dealing with him going back to 2004, when it created the Town Center development as a “community redevelopment agency” and laid out its plans. Ajram’s property was slated for slicing from the start. As he sees it, he never got his occupational license for a dealership because the city would then have had to compensate him that much more in a takings proceeding. That’s the ploy he can’t forgive the city, and why he’s welcoming the eminent domain fight.

He hasn’t lost his taste for the fight. He has lost his taste for what had made Palm Coast attractive to him and his family.

“I lost half of my family,” Ajram says, “lost my property in Lebanon, and the three visits I did there, one for my sister’s wedding, one to bury my father, and one to go there to remove my father’s and mother’s remains from the public cemetery to our cemetery, I felt I don’t belong there. It’s not my place. I don’t even know how to think like that anymore. I cannot even talk the way they talk now, old Beirut language, my language. And here, since I encountered this problem in Palm Coast I feel like I don’t belong here. Where do I go? Which country I go to?”

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21 Responses for “From Beirut to Bulldog Drive: Palm Coast’s Uncivil War Over Gus Ajram’s Property Rights”

  1. Jim Guines says:

    Gus is a wonderful person with a great wife and wonderful children. I hope this situation will be over soon and will not cause him much pain. He does not deserve it.

  2. Jenn Kuiper says:

    I completely agree with you Dr. Guines! A nice family and a good place to take your vehicle when you need it fixed in a hurry. It is so sad to see this happening.

  3. citizen says:

    People should not fear their governments, governments should fear their people. This is quite ridiculous honestly, eminent domain laws are intended to serve the public interest. In this case I fail to see how it does in any regard.

    The right to own property is at the center of our most basic constitutional freedoms. The people own the land not the government. That principle is one of the most important fundamental values of a free country and a free market economy. Pay the man what he wants or move your damn entrance somewhere else! Or better yet just don’t build your “temple gates”, the town center has enough of them already.

    Also, let the man have his occupational license! We need new businesses in this economy you idiots. You should be encouraging entrepreneurs not pushing them away. Businesses create jobs, economic growth, and they also generate more tax revenue. HELLOOOO!!!!

  4. abou zouheir says:

    I think this is a chance for a retail spot very close to the 33 feet the city is dreaming of perhaps a GIGGLES WORLD store than these city officials could buy some toys .

  5. Gus Ajram's nephew says:

    hello all

    i’m Gus Ajrams nephew and i live in NY, i own a computer company, shipping business, and i provide armed escort for ATM technicians. work hard and be honest are my 2 best gifts that i got from my uncle Gus, everytime i talk to him on the phone and before we hang up he always tells me, BE HONEST, WORK HARD, and DO GOOD, it will pay off at the end. whatever the city doing to him got me thinking if i should keep following he’s advice. i talked to him couple days ago and i told him how i felt about he’s advice, and he’s reply was,
    dont let couple bad people change what u stand for and believe in. on that note i want to say , i love you uncle and your family loves you and everybody that knows you loves you, i will be at the court house right by your side to the end cause you would do the same for me.

    god bless

  6. fredy inhorne says:

    Mr Ajram for mayor or better yet governor

  7. Samuel Puckett says:

    Eminent Domain is nothing more then a ploy to for states, cities, and municipalities to confiscate land from the people who have worked hard to own it at a discounted price.  It’s a shakedown.  My family went through the same situation in Ormond Beach over the huge condo/beach park project.  After every property was taken the citizens voted against it and now those properties sit and rot.  I hope you stick it to them, Mr. Ajram!

  8. DP says:

    Down with Landon and the city council. Gus you have my support, TIME FOR A CHANGE IN THE CITY OF PALM COAST, ALL INVOVED WILL GO VOTE THEM OUT

  9. Anastasia Velikorostova says:

    Unfair and so frustrating! The toughest days are supposed to be BEHIND him. I wish him and his family the best. Stupid politicians…

  10. Ready to Rally says:

    We could all learn many things from this family! What a wonderful description of how to be a good Christian- saving people who are being slaughtered no matter what their religion might be! Gus and his family have taken all of these horrible things that have happened in their lives and worked against the odds to survive with honest, hard work. We don’t know how good things are (even as bad as some of us have it right now), until we hear stories like this, of the things people like Gus have had to endure. It is a travesty that he is being treated this way. City of Palm Coast, my family and I implore you – muster up what little decency you have left, and prove to Flagler County that we are made up of good people who would not do this to the Ajram family. We want to bring our children up to respect our local government, and you are making it more and more difficult every day. Bring fair play back into our local dealings!

  11. Brittany Wright says:

    I’ve known the Ajram’s daughters for years. Always polite and well spoken. These are the type of people we want to keep in our community. I feel terrible for everything that they are going through and I hope all of this is solved quickly and in Mr. Ajram’s favor.

  12. BarneyFyfe says:

    Isn’t government control part of the grand plan? There is wide spread and total contempt for the taxpayer and business owners in general. I honestly believe this nonsense about the town center has nothing to do with improving anything in the town and more to do with this town board (or any town board for that matter) being able to put a corner stone in the building with a beautiful bronze plaque emblazoned with their names to signify what they did for everyone and the town and to live on forever in the annals of history. This is nothing more than “feel good” legislation at its best – strong arm Stalinist behavior at its worst. (I really wish they would teach more then 3 pages of American History in school today). Honestly folks, Gus is the true American dream. A dream that US Citizens have lost over time due to years of rewriting history and hence the shenanigans taking place in Palm Coast. Gus has helped me and my family (we live in New York) over the years in many ways. I did not ask him for help. He came forward having the sense that I could use some help and offered it without obligation. This is one hard working man who puts others first and himself last (Hey Landon, I hope you are reading this because I know I am preaching to the choir). He truly would give you the shirt off his back. Cliché? How many people – think hard – do you know that is like this? Today it’s the “what’s in it for me” generation and this town board is no exception. My town board is behaving the same disgraceful way.

    Folks, Remember in November

  13. BarneyFyfe says:

    Landon and crew did you read the headline? Census: Flagler’s Population Stalls at 91,600; 28% of Housing Units Vacant; Poverty Rising. Wouldn’t it be in your best interest to promote business rather than destroy it? Please explain how it is smart government to remove property from the tax roles?

  14. R. Smith says:

    Why is there not room for an automotive business near the Town Center? If they can allow crappy places like Red Lobster, Olive Garden and 7-11 to move in on 100, why can’t the man have his established business that is useful and needed? Small businesses seem to always get the shaft when it comes to cities. If this was a corporation’s land they were trying to steal, their lawyers would never let this happen. The best thing citizens can do is show up to that courthouse and support Mr. Ajrams. Also, we should all call & write letters to the City of Palm Coast.
    If the issue is the look of the property adjacent to Town Center, perhaps the city should be giving him adequate tax breaks or loans so that Gus can revamp his property to blend in with the new businesses coming in to Town Center…oh wait, besides the movie theatre, there are NONE!

    Good luck to you Gus, you have so many supporting you, I hope that eases your mind a bit. Just keep fighting, your’e gonna have a whole new group of clientele at your business!

  15. John Rogers says:

    I agree with you to Jim Guines Gus is an awesome guy, I hope this gets resolved soon.

  16. Sarah says:

    Gus is so handsome!!!!

  17. why? says:

    How much longer is the city of PalmCoast going to put up with this , Jim Landon and all his Bullshit .I say enough is enough. I say it is time hey goes. His salary is more than we taxpayers can afford to start with. And this taking of a piece of property the city does not need to start with is another bunch of BS. Mr. Ajram deserves better than this. The best thing we as a community is support Mr.Ajram and his business . As a customer for years he has never once taken advantage of me or my family . GUS we will be there in court. And as far as Mr Landon go ahead with your threats , When we all get to court, Lets see how much this will cost us. And how much it will cost you ,most likely your job. Period . END OF STORY……..

  18. W.Ryan says:

    This story is the story of many immigrants that had come to this country to start a new life because of the war and violence in their homeland. Gus wasn’t handed a silver spoon or an Ivory League education. This man worked hard all his life to get to where he is today. This article has shown us the example of a man who has worked hard not just for himself but for the love of his family. Withstanding the abuse of authority by the City and Jim Landon is nothing compared to what Gus has already endured. Thanks for sharing your experience Gus. Also, thank you Pierre for telling this story of a True American and the story of abusive governing.

  19. A Voter says:

    Town manager Landon is merely doing the town council’s bidding. Other than Mary DiStefano’s quotation in this news paper all of the rest are quiet as church mice. Landon does the dirt and the council keeps its heads down. Most of these town council members are out to lunch.

  20. saddened says:

    reading this makes me sad-im in the same business-i repair cars to put food on the table….

    i am in the process of opening a shop -and i think i might put that on hold in this county-just because of this mans troubles–its just not right…

    and if there is a rally-i WILL be there!!!-i will support small business and stand hand in hand -shoulder to shoulder with anyone willing to stand up to the local goverment

  21. trebordadda says:

    Great story. Thanks for sharing it. Just shown how these bureaucrats need to get out and get a real job. They don’t seem to understand the c0oncept of “public servants”.

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