Brevard threatens legal action against Cocoa Expo

Expo allegedly violated conditions set by county

The Tigers Elite of Geeenacres and the Red Raiders from Longwood play baseball on the stadium field at Cocoa Expo Saturday afternoon.
The Tigers Elite of Geeenacres and the Red Raiders from Longwood play baseball on the stadium field at Cocoa Expo Saturday afternoon.

An assistant Brevard County attorney plans to file legal action against the Cocoa Expo Sports Center, alleging violations of conditions that the County Commission imposed for temporary use of the complex during a youth baseball tournament last weekend.

Local 6 News partner Florida Today says assistant County Attorney Morris Richardson also warned Cocoa Expo attorney Geoffrey Smith to "prevail upon your client" to follow the rules during another baseball tournament scheduled there this weekend.

Smith contends that, the county seeking legal action against Cocoa Expo is "vast overkill," and wonders what the county's motivation is in hampering Cocoa Expo's business operations. During the last several years that Cocoa Expo has been under renovation, Unnerstall has had disputes with the county over a variety of issues.

"I think the county's position appears to be par for the course on this project," Smith said. "The whole situation is very distressing. We seem to have completely lost sight of the real substantive issues, and have created a toxic relationship between the county staff and a business owner trying to make a good project succeed."

In an email to Smith, Richardson said he will file a civil contempt motion, asking a judge to rule that Cocoa Expo violated an injunction barring it from holding events at the site near State Road 520 and Friday Road, just west of Cocoa.

Richardson said he will seek further direction from the County Commission on Tuesday.

The County Commission on March 31 granted Cocoa Expo a temporary certificate of occupancy that runs until May 18, allowing it to use the main stadium and four other baseball fields, with 14 restrictions. But Richardson contends that Cocoa Expo violated three provisions of its agreement with the county, thus putting the business in violation of the temporary certificate of occupancy.

Among the issues that Richardson cited were:

• Having 400 people on the property at one point during the tournament, which Richardson said was "flagrant disregard" of the County Commission's limit of having no more than 99 people on the property.

• Using a concession stand that had no temporary certificate of occupancy and no business tax receipt in place to allow it to operate. The request for a temporary certificate of occupancy for the concession stand was filed Monday.

• Failing to separate the public from construction activities and equipment at the complex. Richardson said vehicles of members of the public were parked in an area with heavy equipment and construction pipe.

Smith said he disputes that there were violations, "and we will respond appropriately to any motion of contempt that is filed."

For example, Smith contends that the 99-person limit applies only to the number of spectators in the stands at the 4,500-seat stadium, and not the spectators at the other four fields that were used, nor the players, coaches and umpires using the five fields.

Smith said it wouldn't be possible to have five baseball games involving 10 teams going on at the complex at one time and keep the number of people there under 100 when coaches and umpires are added to the mix.

However, a memo from the deputy county clerk who recorded the details of the County Commission action on March 31 describes that provision as "(limiting)" the number of people on the property to 99 persons." The memo does not specify that the four non-stadium fields, players, coaches and umpires are excluded from the count.

Smith said he sees nothing wrong with Cocoa Expo using the concession stand last weekend. He said that if the county's assistant fire marshal documenting the event had a problem with the proximity of spectator parking to a parked bulldozer and sections of pipe, he should "just ask someone at Cocoa Expo if the items could be relocated."

"I don't see the crisis," Smith said. "I see nitpicking, not real concerns about public health and safety and welfare. This is a manufactured crisis. What's behind this is a lot of history of personality conflicts" between county officials and Jeffrey Unnerstall, chairman and chief executive officer of Cocoa Expo, he said.

"I think people have lost sight of the big issue," Smith said. "It's really disappointing and vindictive and overkill. The fact is I think Unnerstall was compliant. I fail to see any major problem with this past weekend's event."

Richardson said he sees his plan to ask a judge to issue a civil contempt motion against Cocoa Expo as both "a carrot and a stick" to get Cocoa Expo officials to comply with the rules.

"We want to convince them that the rules do apply to them," Richardson said.

If the county moves forward with the legal action, Smith said, he will ask for a hearing before the judge assigned to the case to challenge the action, "and I think we would prevail."

While Smith said he can't establish a connection, he noted that Brevard County is seeking to turn the county-owned Space Coast Stadium in Viera into a complex for youth sports tournaments after the Washington Nationals move their spring training out of Viera in 2016 or 2017.

Unnerstall "is in the same business" and investing money to upgrade the Cocoa Expo, Smith said. "The appearance of that makes me wonder," he said.

Cocoa Expo's long-term business model is to host tournaments and training events in a variety of sports, including baseball, softball, soccer, lacrosse, basketball and volleyball. Youth, high school and college teams would be part of the mix.

Teams would stay in on-site dormitories that the county has not yet been permitted to open, while the families of players would stay at local hotels, generating revenue for Cocoa Expo and the local tourism industry.

Richardson, though, said enforcement is needed "when somebody consistently refuses to do the right thing."