NEW SMYRNA BEACH, Fla. — A New Smyrna Beach woman said she will refile a lawsuit against the city and a local yacht club after a judge dismissed her case this week.
The lawsuit accused the club of discriminating against women and minorities while using waterfront city property for just $25 a year. The petitioner said her goal is to force city leaders to end the controversial 99-year lease with the New Smyrna Beach Angler’s Club.
Channel 9 investigative reporter Karla Ray looked into the claims in the suit and asked city leaders why they continue to honor the lease, even though an attorney determined years ago that the city could renegotiate the terms.
From the parking lot, it’s tough to guess the value of the New Smyrna Beach-owned plot being leased by the Angler’s Yacht Club, but seeing boats line the waterfront gives you a good indication that it’s worth more than $25 a year.
“We need these tax dollars, and these are civic assets that all taxpayers are not being able to use,” petitioner Rhonda Kanan said. “That’s wrong.”
Kanan spoke to WFTV after a judge threw out her lawsuit against the city and the club. The lawsuit questioned the legality of a 99-year lease from the 1940s, locking in a $25 per year payment for the 2 acres along the Indian River.
The judge ruled that Kanan did not make a claim of a unique injury and, therefore, did not have the standing to bring the lawsuit.
“I’m totally outraged, outraged by her ruling that I don’t have standing as a taxpayer to bring this lawsuit against the Anglers and the city,” Kanan said.
The suit described the private group as an “exclusive and discriminatory fishing and boating boys club that currently has approximately 90 members, all of them being white males.”
The suit claims “persons of color, women and persons of the Jewish faith have always been excluded.”
“As to claims of discrimination or a white boy’s club, there is no claim here of a violation of civil rights laws,” attorney Scott Gabrielson said while representing the club in a hearing Monday.
In that Zoom court hearing, Gabrielson argued that private organizations are allowed to have selective membership requirements, pointing out that form of discrimination is not illegal, regardless of who owns the land they lease.
Gabrielson confirmed by phone that almost all of the members are white males but said they have at least one Hispanic member.
“If the Junior Leagues want to be restricted to women, they have the right to do that,” Gabrielson said. “Fraternities and sororities can choose their membership.”
There are still questions, though, for the city of New Smyrna Beach about the lease itself.
In 2009, the then-commission voted to renegotiate the agreement after questions were raised about whether the city should continue to do business with a selective-membership organization. However, the lease has not been renegotiated.
A city spokesperson told 9 Investigates they do not comment on pending litigation.
“The arguments I’m going to make here today are directed to the merits of the complaint,” attorney Cliff Shepard, who's representing the city, said Monday in open court. “They should not be an endorsement of any of the policies the Anglers may or may not have.”
Kanan was given 20 days to refile her lawsuit.
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