PEMBROKE PINES — A long-running feud has finally made its way to a courtroom, where six jurors will decide whether Pembroke Pines is to blame for blocking a lucrative detention center from being built in Southwest Ranches.
In a lawsuit filed nearly a decade ago, Southwest Ranches claims Pembroke Pines cost the town millions by refusing to provide water and sewer service to what would have been one of the nation’s largest immigration detention centers.
Had the deal gone through, the center would have been built on land surrounded by Pembroke Pines, where critics objected loudly to the notion of a prison going up nearby. For Southwest Ranches, the failed detention center represents lost money. For Pembroke Pines, it was a battle won.
The trial, partly delayed by the pandemic, got underway Monday and is expected to take two weeks.
Town Attorney Keith Poliakoff says he plans to argue that Pembroke Pines owes Southwest Ranches more than $150 million in damages.
The case hinges on whether Pembroke Pines had the right to back out of an agreement with Southwest Ranches to provide water and sewer service to the site, and also to not interfere with the town’s efforts to lure the detention center.
Corrections Corporation of America, a Nashville-based private prison contractor, had planned to build a 1,500-bed detention center near U.S. 27 and Sheridan Street.
Had the detention center been built, Southwest Ranches expected to collect $1.6 million a year plus $350,000 in annual property taxes.
Poliakoff says Pembroke Pines officials campaigned against the center, breaking an agreement to not interfere with efforts to lure the facility to town.
On Monday, Pembroke Pines Commissioner Iris Siple said she has no regrets.
“It was not a good project for our community,” she said. “We would feel the brunt of all of it. This was wrong project, wrong place.”
Attorney E. Bruce Johnson, who is representing Pembroke Pines in the trial, could not be reached for comment.
The dispute sparked a wave of litigation over the past decade that led to mounting legal bills for both municipalities.
Southwest Ranches has set aside $225,000 to cover the cost of the two-week trial, Town Administrator Andy Berns said.
Pembroke Pines officials could not say Monday just how much the city has spent in legal fees related to the failed detention center. At one point, Pembroke Pines had at least three law firms on retainer.
On Monday, Commissioner Angelo Castillo declined to say whether taxes might increase for Pembroke Pines homeowners if the city were to lose at trial.
Mounting legal bills
But during a public meeting in March 2012, Castillo acknowledged the possibility of taxes going up to cover the cost of litigation.
“If people’s property taxes go up, I think they’ll understand we’re doing everything we can to keep this out of their city,” he said at the time.
Jack McCluskey, a longtime Pembroke Pines resident, says he wouldn’t be surprised if taxes increase should Southwest Ranches win the case.
“But I don’t think they will win,” he said. “I don’t think Southwest Ranches stands a prayer.”
In June 2011, federal officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced they had tentatively chosen Southwest Ranches as the spot for a new detention center.
A public outcry ensued, with Pembroke Pines residents saying they feared the center would bring more crime and lower property values.
In March 2012, the Pembroke Pines commission voted 3-2 to cancel a contract promising water, sewer and fire-rescue service to the land.
By June 2012, federal officials announced they were scrapping plans to build the facility in Southwest Ranches.
Two months later, Southwest Ranches announced plans to sue its neighbor.
“I don’t expect we will lose,” Poliakoff said. “I think the jury will find that Pembroke Pines interfered with the facility coming to Southwest Ranches. And ICE has already said it was a primary factor in the center not coming to Southwest Ranches.”