CROWN POINT | A real estate developer is hoping to turn a handsome profit from Lake County's reputation for public corruption.
The Deer Ridge South Subdivision offers quiet country living nestled in the rolling hills south of Crown Point, which belies its stormy beginning a decade ago when county government stood in the way of the plans of Thomas and Marla Simstad for years.
The Simstads sued and are preparing to bring some of south county's most prominent officials to trial starting Dec. 2.
"The reputation of the region in terms of payback and public corruption is well-known," Michael K. Sutherlin, an Indianapolis attorney representing the Simstads, said. "They play hardball up there, but you still have to follow the law, and the First Amendment is there ensure you cannot use someone's political activities as a basis for making a decision."
The defendants include Lake County Commissioner Gerry Scheub, D-Crown Point, State Rep. Rick Niemeyer, R-Lowell, who was on the plan commission, and Ned Kovachevich, the county planning director who say they only acted responsibly to ensure the Simstads' development wasn't detrimental to public health or safety.
"There is no vendetta against any contractor by the county as long as they do according to our plan commission. I just don't see this," Scheub said.
Local court dockets are thick with lawsuits alleging political retaliation, but many of the claims are usually made by former government employees who fell off some public payroll.
The Simstads' careers were in the private sector where they spent 35 years shepherding more than 50 residential developments such as Buck Hill Estates, Oak Hill Estates and Country Meadows Estates from the drawing board and into suburban reality.
Thomas Simstad was doing so at a time when residential development was spilling beyond city and town borders and across former farm fields. Some rural county residents have decried the changing character of the land. Kovachevich said the plan commission tries to balance those conflicting interests.
U.S. District Court papers indicate their run of success changed in 2003 when Simstad bought 38 acres northeast of Crown Point-Cedar Lake Road and Clark Street at a cost of $545,000 to develop Deer Ridge South Subdivision, with the expectation of more than doubling his money.
"After having 54 previous developments approved by the Lake County Plan Commission, they were just stonewalled time after time after time, and they heard that Scheub had made it clear that they would never get anything approved again as long as he was the commissioner," Sutherlin said.
The suit alleges the Simstads ran afoul of Scheub's "political and personal agendas, refused to buy or sell political tickets, (and) spoke against Kovachevich being appointed executive director of the (plan commission.)"
"We had no idea Simstad was involved in Deer Ridge South because a gentlemen named Ken Bachorski first brought it to us," Kovachevich said. He said it didn't conform with the county's subdivision ordinance.
He said months later Simstad came forward, told officials he was the developer and provided an amended layout. Kovachevich said Simstad still couldn't justify Deer Ridge South's quirks.
The Simstads' suit alleges the county demanded, among other things, they change the location and configuration of the subdivision's entrance and reduce the number and value of lots in addition to other technical revisions.
Sutherlin said the Simstads, "who knew the county subdivision ordinance backwards and forwards," got tired of the two-year stalemate, sued and won a Jasper County judge's order to force both sides into mediation where a compromise was struck.
The Simstads claim by the time the county plan commission finally approved Deer Ridge South, its lots went on sale just as the real estate market was tanking. Sutherlin said an expert is prepared to testify their losses exceed $6 million.
The Simstads sold their interest in the subdivision last year.
Lake County Attorney John Dull said this week there are no plans to settle the suit out of court.