Let Them Eat Cheesecake

On a recent weekday afternoon, massive yachts bobbed gently off Turnberry Isle in Aventura. Sunbathers on shore lolled in a sea of white lounge chairs around a glittering pool, the only background noise a waterfall ruffling the chlorinated surface.

It's here that a dispute over zoning, lifestyle, and towels escalated into a bitter lawsuit, a war of words, and, at one point, organized taunting of obese people.

Back in 1999, members of the Turnberry Isle Condominium Association filed a lawsuit that attracted some of Miami's most high-profile lawyers to argue over a waterfront health and wellness spa that draws celebrities and power brokers such as movie director Carl Reiner, former New York Mayor David Dinkins, and Ellen Cleghorne of Saturday Night Live. The case, pitting condo residents against the Pritikin Longevity Center and the Turnberry Isle Resort and Club, has dragged on for six years and was set for an appeals court hearing the day Hurricane Wilma hit. It has been rescheduled for January.

"This is the intellectual equivalent of two bald men fighting over a comb," says Pritikin attorney Eugene Stearns, whose court victories have included the largest compensatory damage verdict awarded by a Florida jury — a one-billion-dollar ruling against Exxon Mobil for breach of sales agreements. "People cease being adults when they live in a condo association."

Pritikin began leasing the marina area at the Turnberry Isle Resort and Club six years ago. It's a place where losing a little jiggle or cutting cholesterol costs about $4000 a week. For their money, guests get custom-tailored nutrition and fitness training, workshops, spa massages, and even Botox injections, according to Pritikin's Website. It's the kind of place where fresh orchids are placed in your room and an "inspiring 'thought of the day'" is tucked under your pillow every night.

Just a few months after Pritikin moved in, the condo association sued both the health clinic and Turnberry. Condo owners claimed they'd been promised exclusive use of the pool and facilities such as a restaurant, which Pritikin was running in its whole-grains and poached-pears way. The suit accused the clinic of violating zoning laws and compromising residents' lifestyle by shutting down the pool bar, prohibiting poolside snacks, and putting the kibosh on towel service, umbrellas, and the like.

The complex, known as a haven for the jet set in the Seventies and Eighties, had become a shadow of itself after Pritikin moved in, the residents argued. "It's completely incompatible," says condo association attorney and onetime Democratic U.S. Congressional candidate Gerald Richman.

Stearns isn't sympathetic, saying that residents are unreasonably holding on to visions of Turnberry's heyday in the "fast boats, fast cars, fast women" era of Miami's cocaine boom.

In 2003, after four years of court proceedings, some of the 300 or so mostly senior residents of Turnberry's North Tower, the building closest to the marina, took matters into their own hands. Some of them, apparently angry and frustrated with the slow-moving case, wore anti-Pritikin T-shirts in the pool area and called Pritikin guests "fat bastards" and "whales," according to court records.

The same year, records state, some condo residents went as far as organizing eat-ins. They would sit amid Pritikin dieters and nosh on cheesecake, hot dogs, and, once, Krispy Kreme donuts, according to court documents filed by Pritikin. Pritikin argued that residents' high jinks amounted to an unlawful assault on its business.

A 2004 ruling affirmed, among other things, Pritikin's right to operate at the site and the condo residents' entitlement to the pool and its accouterments. Both sides appealed. A hearing set for October 24, the day Hurricane Wilma hit South Florida, has been pushed back to January.

These days the fireworks surrounding the case have died down to glowing embers. The pool hasn't seen any cheesecake in years. Asked about the incidents, a few sunbathing residents and Pritikin guests recently pleaded ignorance. A pool attendant who said he had worked there for ten years declined to recall the era. Still, the lingering dispute paints a hard-to-forget picture of Miami-style real estate squabbling.

Richman insists the case is about important quality-of-life issues. No one wants a "clinical" operation in their back yard or swanky pool area for that matter, Richman says. He downplays stories of residents accosting Pritikin dieters, calling the accounts "really overblown" and beside the point.

"The best defense is a good offense," he says of the claims.

Attorneys for the club, Ronald Ravikoff and Jennifer Coberly, did not return calls.

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Rob Jordan
Contact: Rob Jordan