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Bulldog Drive War Over: Palm Coast Settles With Ajram, Paying Him $215,000 More Than It Offered in 2011

| July 2, 2014

'It hasn't sunk in yet,' Colleen Ajram said Wednesday as she and her husband Gus reflected on the settlement with Palm Coast outside of GEA Auto on Bulldog Drive. (© FlaglerLive)

‘It hasn’t sunk in yet,’ Colleen Ajram said Wednesday as she and her husband Gus reflected on the settlement with Palm Coast outside of GEA Auto on Bulldog Drive. (© FlaglerLive)

After years of battling with business owner Gus Ajram over his property on Bulldog Drive, intimidating his tenants, threatening condemnation, and refusing to pay his asking price of $1.125 million for two parcels key to the city’s beautification designs at the entrance to Town Center, the Palm Coast City Council on Tuesday finally agreed to settle with Ajram—for $215,000 more than the city was willing to pay in 2011, and $25,000 more than what even Ajram was asking then. The city also grants him the right to stay at the property an additional six months, for $1 in rent.

The city will pay Ajram $1.15 million out of the city’s reserves–that is, with general revenue dollars. In 2011, it had offered him, as its final price, $935,000.

It could have all been accomplished three years ago for Ajram’s lesser price of $1.125 million, when the city was successfully acquiring all the other parcels for the widening of Bulldog Drive. But a conflict that had by then become personal between Ajram and City Manager Jim Landon clouded the issue—and affected city designs to the point of redrawing the plans for the Bulldog Drive entrance, from four lanes to two. The original plan could have carried the day had the city settled three years ago, saving the city the additional, future expense of again turning Bulldog Drive into a construction site once the four-laning becomes reality.

Ajram, the long-time owner of GEA Auto, is close to signing papers on a land on U.S. 1 in Palm Coast, where he will move GEA Auto once construction of a steel and concrete building is finished.

The settlement, signed by Ajram and his wife and unanimously approved by the council, is the result of a day-long mediation session on June 20, conducted by South Florida mediator Will Smith, between the city and the Ajrams, with both sides’ attorneys doing the heavy lifting. Aside from ceding the property to the city, Ajram’s only other concession was giving up any rights to  bring legal claims related to the property against the city in the future. At first Ajram was not going to sign because of that clause, he said, but then opted to do so. “I just want to move on,” he said, speaking in his office on Bulldog Drive this afternoon.

“Honestly, I have no feelings,” Ajram said. “I’m like a numb person. What I went through, like pain you get used to and you don’t feel it anymore.” Asked if he thought the settlement was fair, Ajram had a one-word answer: “Yeah.”

Along the way, however—in the past two and a half years—Ajram had a heart attack, and subsequently collapsed during an angry appearance before the council, an appearance emblematic of the acrimony that had developed out of intransigence on both sides. Ajram all along thought his intransigence was his right, while the city’s was, as he saw it, an attempt to bully him out of his property at an unfair price. At the time, Ajram was renting the two properties to other auto repair businesses. The city, to push them out of the location, paid the businesses’ “moving” expenses to get them out, a move Ajram protested as an illegal interference between him and his tenants. The city miscalculated, however: once the tenants were gone, Ajram moved in. And the city lost another $60,000 on the deal (the $20,200 and $39,150 it paid the two businesses to move), an amount, of course, the city has not included in the price of its settlement with Ajram.

“We had so much support from people, it’s unbelievable. I knew I would never lose. I have the largest family here.”
–Gus Ajram

The city then threatened to condemn the property. But eminent domain proceedings are notoriously lengthy and expensive, and nothing guaranteed the city success on its terms. Ajram did not budge. The city then retreated, and revamped its plans for Bulldog Drive from a four-lane to a two-lane project, currently under way and scheduled for completion by the end of August.

“The bottom line is this brings resolution to a long-standing series of issues that we’ve had,” Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts said. “Mr. Ajram wants to run his business, he wants to run his business unfettered, we want the properties along Bulldog Drive to comply with our codes. This is a resolution, and somewhere along the line I think you said it or the attorney said it, in mediation, you want to do something that nobody is really thrilled with the end result, and that’s probably the fairest possible.”

The Ajrams are not thrilled with the end result because much of their personal history is wrapped up in the Bulldog Drive properties, which gave Ajram his considerable customer base, and proved to be the business that anchored him in one place the longest.

City Attorney Bill Reischmann, for his part, tried to paint the situation as positively as possible for the city, even as he was presenting documents that clearly showed how much the city was conceding, and at what cost in dollars, time and designs for Bulldog Drive.

“Even though there was no pending litigation, there was no lawsuit, the Ajrams and the city agreed that it would be beneficial to try to work through what has been ongoing for many years now,” Reischmann said. “That mediation, which is a formal process, it’s not a trial, it’s not an arbitration, it’s basically a formalized settlement conference, you have a professional mediator that kind of does a Henry Kissinger like movement back and forth between different groups in trying to find and forge a middle ground, a compromise.”

Reischmann was not a party to the mediation. The city was represented by attorney Debra Babb-Nutcher, of Reischmann’s firm (she counsels city advisory boards), along with Landon and Beau Falgout, the senior planner and Landon’s right-hand man. Ajram and his wife Colleen attended, along with attorneys Anthony Policastro and Maureen Jones. Each side presented an opening statement, before being separated and sitting out the day in separate rooms, with Smith, the mediator, shuttling between them.

In his efforts to paint the settlement as favorably as possible for the city, Reischmann did not mention that the city was paying far more than it had offered in 2011, or that it was paying more than even Ajram was asking. Instead, Reischamnn reached for a property value comparison that had little relevance to the matter at hand. “I can tell you,” Reischmann said, “that this is an amount that is less than the comparable figure that would have been used, based upon the value of the property that the city did purchase at the corner of Bulldog Drive and State Road 100, so that was one factor in the discussions supporting the city’s offer.”

Reischmann was on stronger ground when he discussed the legal rights Ajram was giving up. The settlement, he said, “includes a release of any and all claims that the Ajrams may have or could bring through the completion of this process of settlement, and they’ve raised quite a few through the years, and they were raised, all of them were raised again at the mediation. The city believes that, we feel strongly that while these claims are without merit. That does not mean that they will not be brought and it does not mean that the expenses associated with defending those claims will not be incurred by the city and by sits taxpayers, so that is indeed one arguable benefit of putting all of this behind the city.”

Unmentioned during the meeting was Ajram’s attempt to recoup attorneys’ fees: the city refused to budge on that count, leaving the bill to Ajram.

Council members had few questions. Landon explained the $1-rent arrangement that would enable Ajram’s GEA Auto to keep operating there for the next six months: “The idea behind that is to give the Ajrams an opportunity to relocate the business that they have there and give them plenty of time to find a new home for that business.”

Council member Dave Ferguson on two occasions made offensive remarks, as far as the Ajrams were concerned, as he openly questioned their honesty, questioning giving them the money up front and saying, “If they have their money, they theoretically could play the game later on”—meaning they could refuse to leave the property. Ferguson returned to the charge moments later by wondering who would be responsible for serious environmental damage to the property, if such damage was found—even though the city has already ruled out that possibility and does not expect such issues to arise. Ferguson’s comments contrasted with his actions outside the chamber: he’d sought to help the Ajrams in recent months.

At any rate, the city has no plans for the property it’s acquiring at the moment, beyond finishing this phase of the Bulldog Drive widening. “I want to stress the Bulldog Drive improvement project that’s going on right now will continue and will be finished on schedule in August,” Landon said, “so this doesn’t have any impact on that whatsoever. Furthermore, we don’t have any immediate plans for this property, and there will be no cost associated with those six months to the city, so whether the Ajrams are there or they’re not there, their business there has no financial impact on us. This isn’t like you buy a home and you want to move into it but you have to wait until they move out. We don’t have any plans for this property.”

Ajram said he hopes not to be on Bulldog Drive too many months. “Our season starts the beginning of the year,” Ajram said, “and the six months will end up ending in the heart of our sales season. I don’t want to be moving in the peak of my season. The sooner, the better.”

He does not expect any more tension with the city at his new place of business. “I think for what we went through and how we ended up with mediation,” Ajram said, “I won’t have any problems, and this time I leave it to professionals. I’m not going to touch it.”

Meanwhile GEA Auto’s business volume has plummeted because of the construction in front of the business, which turned Bulldog Drive into a sandy mess. “Who’s going to drive a Mercedes down this street?” Ajram asked, referring to a large portion of his business, which specializes in European cars. “But we’re still busy. It’s still backed up, because what we do, no one can.”

Outside the business, as Ajram embraced his wife Colleen, she said the events of the last two weeks “haven’t sunk in yet.” She too was regretful of leaving the location on Bulldog Drive, to which she is greatly attached. She speaks of the move to U.S. 1 as “a new adventure.”

Ajram himself reiterated his attachment even to the city, though not quite its government. “If not for my customers,” he said, “I wouldn’t be around. All the support all these years: we had so much support from people, it’s unbelievable. That’s why I feel it’s my place. It’s my family. I cannot describe to you how thankful I am for all these friends. I knew I would never lose. I have the largest family here.”

Ajram-Palm Coast Settlement and Lease Agreement (2014)

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24 Responses for “Bulldog Drive War Over: Palm Coast Settles With Ajram, Paying Him $215,000 More Than It Offered in 2011”

  1. Sandra Reynolds says:

    They should rename the street to Bully Drive.

    • starryidgirl says:

      Across the street from where all this is happening, they teach the students that BULLYING is wrong. Here is a perfect case-study of how big bullies think they’re always going be the winner.

      When are Landon and Netts going to stop robbing the people of our City of their hard-earned tax dollars?

      God’s Blessings and Good health to Gus and Colleen now that the savages are back in their cages!!!


    Good for him. He deserves more because of all the aggravation the city caused him.

    On another note, I seem to remember something as an adjunct to this story about the county having to cede some property in the area to the city because the city didn’t even have the right to do what it was planning because it didn’t own the property.

    Anybody remember the details of that?

    • Bill says:

      YES good for him BUT bad for the taxpayers of PC. The dumb azzes we put in place cost us more $$$$$. As for the County and City part of the road YUP the county owned the road but the City was doing all the work and NOBODY knew it was still county property

  3. Mack says:

    Let’s simplify the economics of this situation.

    The City receives the property it wants in exchange for more money than the Ajram’s originally asked for. The Ajram’s are given a courteous 6 months @ $1 rent to find a new place to move to.

    Why the extra money? Why the courtesy? From all I’ve read about this situation, the City is run by enough snakes to have it fenced off as a wildlife preserve and have done little to rectify that image throughout this process.

    The only angle that makes sense is the incredible utility of the clause that the City required in the paperwork that will stop Ajram from pursuing a legal battle regarding the property at another time. That clause is apparently worth $25,000 to the City. Assuming the City is run by intelligent (if not morally and ethically questionable – imagine politicians being described as such!) people, and if (that’s a big ‘if’) the City won a future legal battle, is $25,000 what they believe would be the legal fees of that battle on their end? That doesn’t make sense; $25,000 isn’t much money in this situation.

    I read the settlement as the City saying, “we screwed with you horribly over the years and the liability we have from those actions is worth paying you an extra $25,000 to shut you up and prevent you from further litigation.”

    I wouldn’t doubt that they’d even try to paint the extra $25,000 as an ‘olive branch’ after everything that’s occurred. If a City official says that after I post this, please cite this comment as the original source.

    This City is a joke. Good on the Ajram’s for finally escaping what had to be a tortuous battle with Palm Coast. Thankfully being on US 1 will be about the same distance from your customers as you were on Bulldog and with any luck the relocation will not hurt business. Hell, I’ll come trade my Lexus in after you move.

  4. MP says:

    The pretty picture they tried to paint when they’ve done nothing but bully and try to sabotage a business owner was amusing at best. Infuriating, when you’ve been following this all along. Nevertheless, I’ve never been happier for someone to come out on top and, mostly, to move on. Congratulations, Gus and Colleen, and may the odds be ever in your favor.

  5. Concerned Citizen says:

    These characters had the nerve to think they could threaten the well being of my family for questioning their illegal behavior. It threw our entire life out of loop since October 2012 and we keep finding how their legal staff uses their experience and tax payer’s dollars to tie people up in and emotional, psychological, and financial rollercoaster to cover up their dirty deeds.

    They use tax payer’s dollars to harass the hell out of whoever they think they can while it sure looks local law enforcement has a special $2.6 million budget and unwritten agreeent not to investigate the truth and help to enforce the Florida Law that says abusing citizen’s rights under color of law, when you have reason to know any part of what you are doing is fraudulent, is a 3rd degree felony.

    Federal law says it’s a crime:

    Florida state law says it is a crime:

    Florida Statutes 843.0855 – Criminal actions under color of law or through use of simulated legal process:
    (3) A person who simulates legal process, including, but not limited to, actions affecting title to real estate or personal property, indictments, subpoenas, warrants, injunctions, liens, orders, judgments, or any legal
    documents or proceedings, knowing or having reason to know the contents of any such documents or proceedings or the basis for any action to be fraudulent, commits a felony of the third degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084.

    How many times has the City violated citizen’s constitutional rights via bogus code enforcement proceedings each month be it traffic or land issues? How many times do people only get 10 days notice when they are entitled to a minimum of 30 with another 10 if the first notice was not received? How many times have they lied and said the citizen was already notified, presented false documents to back up the lie, and went ahead with the code enforcement board meetings? Just that issue alone is a flagrant abuse of people’s rights, not to mention all the lies they can tell in offiial proceedings which they “have reason to know” (no proof of perjury required, just reason to know in their fiduciary positions) are not true.

    No one is holding these characters accountable in this county as they seem to be practicing legal attrition at the tax payer’s expense ALL the time.

    The absense of government upholding the law leads to anarchy and all kinds of illegal dangerous mishief.

    They can’t be allowed to continue playing the legal attrition con job as other seperate powers simply look the other way. It is a crime. It must be stopped.

  6. Slime Watcher says:

    So the City’s slimey political trolls are now going to GIVE this man 1.15 million dollars for his two little pieces of property. No sweat out of their pockets. BECAUSE ITS OUR MONEY not theirs. I’m so DISGUSTED with these political worms in Palm Toast . Yes that’s right, this city is TOAST !!!

  7. Chump Change says:

    That was paid out of the Red Light Camera kitty.

  8. m&m says:

    Another example of our city taking over peoples places of business and calling it progress.. From what I call it is an ego trip.. Elections are coming up and you who know what shoud be done.

  9. Gia says:

    Nice racket. Once again the PC gov. has no idea how to do business. As usual taxpayers got the shaft.

  10. Heading North says:

    Talk about the city screwing taxpayers– try this one!
    I moved out of Palm Coast last October (2013). I turned OFF the water to my residence while it was on the market. I sold it in April of this year.
    The entire time it was on the market, with the water OFF they charged me $60.15. EVERY month for water and sewer usage!!!
    They said it was because they had to check the meter. FOR WHAT?? The water was shut off, and no one was living there so NO sewer either!!!
    And I still had to pay every month!!!
    People wonder why I moved away – that’s just one reason – there are many others.
    And I gave the people of Flagler County 22 years of service as a State employee.

  11. confidential says:

    What a waste of our taxes, again to benefit the Town Center Developers. First this costly land purchases in Bull Dog drive and lately City Hall defeated by the people in the referendum. County and city hard earned taxes sold out to the highest bidder by the elected ones that to the contrary should be representing our interest and not the already greedy wealthy one.

  12. Tired of it says:

    You are correct THE VOICE OF REASON, the city did not own the rights to the road. That was brought to their attention by the Ajram’s attorney. Although that little detail didn’t seem to matter. Nor does the detail about all the extra money the city spent on redesigning the road to go around the Ajram’s property. I would like an honest (I know that’s funny) figure on all the money that was wasted fighting with this property owner over a road the City of Palm Coast didn’t even own. If it were in the millions I would not be surprised. And who profited from this ongoing argument?

  13. Mellissa C says:

    Way to go Gus! He deserves every penny and is a wonderful person!

  14. Mike says:

    When will the City Council stop Mr. Landon and his bloated ego? How much money will we pay this man for poor job performance? Elections are coming and it is time to vote out the council in Palm Coast. They are so behind the times and out of touch with what needs to be done in our city, time for change, do not reward poor performance with another 4 years.

  15. Florida James says:

    Thank you for standing up to the bullies. It has been a terrible strain and stress on you.
    Hopefully with more people demanding accountability for the City of Palm Coast’s actions, life here will improve. Maybe we can get some decent officials.
    BTW – we have heard people in other cities call this place “Composte” not Palm Coast.
    That is so sad that what could be a lovely place (once was) could be so damaged by the actions of a few.

  16. confidential says:

    What about utilizing all those millions to repair the decaying, sinking, mosquito breeding grounds of our storm water system in Palm Coast or start again repaving our cracked asphalt roads? Why the Town Center developer didn’t buy/ pay for those parcels as they are benefitting from the purchase?
    Now what is next… they will give away those parcels to some fake promising BSING Corporation to create ghost, invisible jobs? When are we going to stand up and stop the give away of our taxes misused and taken from the “general fund or the utility reserves?” Taxes are intended to pay for our services not fraudulently utilized to benefit the elite and then raise our utility and other rates to pay for the budget shortfalls of funds! Use our taxes for what they are intended…pay for the taxpayers services not for overpriced real state or useless utilities.

  17. Chris Jensen says:

    Ahh… another chapter in the communist play book comes to a close. That’s right I said it. COMMUNIST.

    com·mu·nism [kom-yuh-niz-uhm] noun
    1. a theory or system of social organization based on the holding of all property in common, actual ownership being ascribed to the community as a whole or to the state.
    2. ( often initial capital letter ) a system of social organization in which all economic and social activity is controlled by a totalitarian state dominated by a single and self-perpetuating political party.

    IE: the talking heads of the City of Palm Coast)

    Just another disgraceful display of political bullying – you can’t fight city hall. Come hell or high water the talking heads will prevail. You lose! We lose! Everyone is surprised at how bad the economy is. Really? Politicians from the smallest village to the largest state (POTUS being the biggest dolt) are making it impossible to run a business. Rules, regulations, taxes, fees, study after study after study, excise taxes, permits, licenses, special interest groups, beautification codes, sign heights, letter sizes, how high the mirror needs to be in your business restroom, and the list goes on and on The power hungry politicians (every stinking one of them) will do whatever it takes to remain in control and make your life miserable along the way.

    The Ajram “deal” is a thumb in the nose to all of us. The city could have settled for less yet the stubborn behavior of the communist regime dragged it out all the while thinking that the Ajram’s would cave under pressure. Everyone lost. The Ajram’s with huge legal fees and lost business due to the city bullying the construction project at their front door, and the city not only with the settlement but factor in the legal fees, redesign of their pet project (all for a cornerstone with some dolt’s name on it), and the labor hours spent crafting ways to destroy the Ajram’s.

    And, low and behold dirty laundry was discovered with back door deals and shady hidden property problems (rights, deeds, surveys, etc) but let us not have any of that balderdash get in the way of PROGRESS. Oh no… we will destroy anyone who gets in the way of progress. Why let the truth cloud the issue! Let’s just Move On!

    Gus and Colleen, from someone very close to you I wish you the best with your new endeavor. I know you will be successful wherever you go or in whatever you chose to do because you are straight up honest people.

    Folks, WAKE UP! Term limits are available every time you have the opportunity to vote.

  18. w.ryan says:

    I kept driving past and seeing the street a complete mess. I kept saying they are strangling his business! I’m glad there is resolution. He didn’t deserve all the nonsense. Best of luck to him!

  19. Shark says:

    It’s time for nets, landon and the rest of the circus act to go!!!!!

  20. Tom Mustac says:

    I have not seen the Gus and Colleen in many years and I am happy to see that they emerged victorious from this nasty episode in their lives. They are an awesome hard working family that have busted their butts all their lives. They deserve triple this payoff for the sliminess that they had to deal with… God bless! Miss you guys!

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