Lebda and Pittenger lawyers tell it to the judge

Plus: Police chief forecasts fewer homicides in 2020; Lawyer DeMayo censured; Panthers detail faults with stadium

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Quail Hollow mansion drama heads to court as Gleneagles HOA draws scrutiny; ‘Mr. Lebda is 6’2”, and he can see right through those windows onto our client’s property’

The property-dispute drama between LendingTree CEO Doug Lebda and former U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger moved to court on Tuesday, with lawyers for each millionaire for the first time laying out the heart of their cases to a judge.

In a nearly empty courtroom in the Mecklenburg County Courthouse, Judge James Gale heard arguments from lawyers for each side, as well as lawyers from the Gleneagles homeowners association, on motions for summary judgment. If the judge grants those motions, the case would end in favor of Lebda and the homeowners association. A decision could take weeks. Lebda and Pittenger didn’t attend the hearing.

The battle of Baltusrol: Pittenger sued Lebda and his wife and the homeowners association in June 2018. In court documents, Pittenger claimed the association improperly approved plans allowing Lebda to build a gargantuan house next to his on Baltusrol Lane near the tee box of Quail Hollow Club’s 15th hole. The Lebda mansion, finished this spring, is 2” over a 10-foot setback, and the two sides have sparred over whether its height and number of car bays (five) are allowed under neighborhood covenants that date to the 1970s.

Property records show that Pittenger’s house is 10,500 s.f. and valued at $4.4M. Lebda’s is 14,900 s.f. and is valued at $4.1M.

Dividing line: Lebda’s 14,900 s.f. mansion (left) at Quail Hollow is the source of contention with next-door neighbor Pittenger, whose mansion is 10,500 s.f.

The saga has had a number of twists, revealed in court documents over the last few months, including:

Aerial photos show that a large portion of Lebda’s house (top), under construction at the time, is close to Pittenger’s pool and living area — though they are separated by a hedge.

The judge’s questioning on Tuesday centered to a large degree on the role and actions of the homeowners association, and whether it met its obligations in ensuring that Lebda’s construction plans conformed to neighborhood guidelines. The case is unusual because most lawsuits against homeowners associations come from homeowners who have been denied the right to build. The Pittenger-Lebda spat is a case in which Pittenger is suing because the association approved construction.

Pittenger’s lawyer, Ken Davies, told the court the homeowners association didn’t take enough care to ensure that Lebda’s house would fit in with the neighborhood: “They approved these plans … within a very, very short time. No meeting, no minutes, no discussion, nothing. Just ‘here they are,’ and you get emails back [that say] ‘approved.’”

Controversial windows: As a result, he said, the Lebda mansion was built close to Pittenger’s estate, “with 12 to 14 windows looking down on his kitchen, his sunroom and his pool.” He added: “We’ve been in there. I can tell you, Mr. Lebda is 6’2”, and he can see right through those windows onto our client’s property.”

The lawyer for the homeowners association, Pat Flanagan, told the judge that the association’s actions were reasonable: “They followed the process and procedure.”

Lebda’s lawyer, Rob Wilder, said Lebda and his wife did just what they were supposed to do: They received permits, got the blessing of the homeowners association and built a house.

Diverse architecture: “You can’t ride around the neighborhood and say, ‘I don’t like this house and that house’ and file a suit about it,” Wilder said. He added that the neighborhood contains a wide range of houses — “It has more architectural styles than I’ve ever seen,” he said — including “some sort of Mediterranean house” owned by former Carolina Panthers coach John Fox. “People get to build what they want.”

As far as the windows overlooking the Pittenger mansion, Wilder said: “Part of city living in Charlotte is, you have neighbors. When I walk down the street, I can look in my neighbors’ windows and see them drinking coffee. … It’s not illegal to build a house where you can see your neighbor’s property. That’s pretty much standard operating procedure.”

It’s tough to say which way Judge Gale might be leaning, as he peppered each side with piercing hypothetical questions. Gale, based in Greensboro, is a senior judge on the N.C. Business Court. He was appointed to the court by Gov. Bev Perdue in 2011. He didn’t indicate when he might rule.

Police chief prediction: Homicides will fall in 2020

Speaking to Charlotte Rotary on Tuesday, Police Chief Kerr Putney predicted that the city’s spiking number of murders this year will decline next year.

But he said that to keep murder numbers falling over the next decade or two, leaders need to invest in youth and hold other parts of the justice system as accountable as the police department, which made changes in how it operates after the 2016 riots.

“Our whole justice system has to face that same level of scrutiny,” Putney said in the speech to civic and business leaders. “I know many judges and magistrates and prosecutors in the room might be uncomfortable when I start talking about this. But we’re better as an organization because we met this head on.”

He also addressed this week’s murder of Scott Brooks, the co-owner of Brooks’ Sandwich House, a restaurant in NoDa:

[Yesterday] morning, there was a random act over in NoDa. Those kinds of situations are the ones that really, really, really hurt our detectives. There’s a personal element to it. People go, “It can happen anywhere.” Truthfully, those kinds of things really can happen to anyone. That’s why we have to get serious.

I don’t know, but I’d be willing to bet — and 70% chance I’d be right — that whoever committed this, this was not their first violent criminal offense. Seventy percent of those people charged with homicide in this jurisdiction have committed violence in the past. Seven out of 10.

He said that 75-80% of the time, murder victims know their attackers: “The vast majority of the time, you’re going to know who’s going to end your life when it comes to homicide.”

Charlotte is at 103 homicides for the year (as of Tuesday night). In all of 2018, there were 58. Putney, who has been with CMPD since 1992, was promoted to chief in 2015. He’s retiring next year.

It was a wide-ranging and timely speech. Click here to read the full transcript.

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Loves me some internet: Too merry of a Christmas

Walmart is apologizing for selling a Christmas sweater online in Canada that features a drug reference: “The sweater featured an image of Santa Claus behind a table with three white lines that look similar to cocaine lines. Below the image is the phrase ‘Let it snow,’” CNN reported.

The Panthers’ long list of stadium gripes

The Business Journal’s Eric Spanberg has a great behind-the-scenes look at exactly what the Carolina Panthers believe is outdated about Bank of America Stadium. The team has said it would eventually like a new, domed stadium, paid for in part with tax money.

Spanberg followed around Panthers chief operating officer Mark Hart during last weekend’s ACC championship football game and dutifully noted all of Hart’s complaints. And boy, does Hart have a long list. Among the gripes Spanberg chronicled (article is subscriber-only):

  • Not enough stadium entry points

  • Bronze panther statues obstruct security checkpoints

  • Premium cocktail stands need better lighting

  • I-277 underpass is too dark

  • Team store is too dark and too small

  • Concession stands are labeled “hot dogs” with no mention of other food

  • Craft beer area’s main sign is too hard to see from afar

  • Signs have “lackluster fonts”

  • Not enough room for tractor-trailers required for concerts

  • Artificial turf might be more cost-effective than grass

  • Too few kitchens

Reading the article, you get the sense that there are a lot more perceived shortcomings that weren’t able to be included.

A former Panthers executive once said the stadium has “good bones.” But clearly the Panthers would like to give the rest of its body a major overhaul, if not replace it entirely.

In brief

  • DeMayo censured: Well-known Charlotte personal injury lawyer Michael A. DeMayo has been censured by the state bar, according to court records. Records show DeMayo’s firm reached a settlement with AIG Insurance Co. but mistakenly overpaid a client by $4,394. A week later, DeMayo sent her a letter titled “Overpayment and Fraud” that demanded the amount be repaid and added: “Failure to comply with this request will result in our being forced to swear out a warrant for theft and conversion. This is very serious and it is a crime.” The bar found that statement to be false and that the threatening letter was improper. DeMayo didn’t return an email from the Ledger on Tuesday.

  • Tin Willy case delayed: A lawyer for the owners of Tin Willy, the souped-up RV cited by code enforcement because it was rented out on Airbnb in the Belmont neighborhood, requested Tuesday that the appeal be postponed until January.

  • Approvals in error: The chairman of a city planning panel said Tuesday he’s frustrated that city planning staff members and county inspectors too often seem to approve plans or construction that doesn’t conform with zoning laws, which puts the panel in a tough position when property owners seek an exemption from zoning rules. “Plans are submitted, plans are approved, then they want us to give them a variance for something that was built,” said Rick Sanderson, chairman of the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment, at a meeting Tuesday. “How does it keep happening? There’s a flaw someplace in the system.” City staff replied it didn’t have an answer. One case Tuesday involved a subdivision approved off Margaret Wallace Road in southeast Charlotte despite the existence of a 140-foot-high cell tower. Another involved approval permits for a wrap-around porch too close to a property line issued to a contractor for a house near Charlotte Country Club in Plaza-Midwood.

  • Parking tech investment: Charlotte-based tech company Passport announced it raised a new $65M round of funding, for a total of $125M. It is “a permitting, parking and ticketing management service for cities, office parks and campuses” and “proves that software can even disrupt something as mundane and seemingly low-tech as the parking lot.” (TechCrunch)

  • Slowdown worries: The heads of several large Charlotte-based companies expect growth to slow in 2020, they said this week. CEOs from Bank of America, Honeywell and Lowe’s said they see bright spots but worry about trade wars and declining consumer and business confidence. They also said they worry about finding enough qualified workers (WFAE, Observer).

Cheap getaways from CLT

  • NFL playoffs: Charlotte to Las Vegas, $136 round-trip on American (nonstop), Jan. 9-13.

  • Charlotte to Newark, $52 round-trip on Spirit (nonstop), various dates in January-February.

  • Charlotte to Miami, $100 round-trip on American (nonstop), various dates January-April.

  • Charlotte to Baltimore, $52 round-trip on Spirit (nonstop), various dates in January-February.

  • Ski trip: Charlotte to Denver, $98 round-trip on Frontier (nonstop), various dates in January and February.

  • Charlotte to San Juan, Puerto Rico, $146 round-trip on Spirit (one-stop), Feb. 6-11.

Source: Google Flights. Fares retrieved Wednesday morning. They might have changed by the time you read this.

Programming note: Ledger editor Tony Mecia appears as a guest on 90.7 WFAE at 6:40 a.m. and 8:40 a.m. on Thursdays for a discussion of the week’s local business news in the station’s “BizWorthy” segment. Audio and transcripts are also available online.

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The Charlotte Ledger is an e-newsletter and web site publishing timely, informative, and interesting local business news and analysis Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, except holidays and as noted. We strive for fairness and accuracy and will correct all known errors. The content reflects the independent editorial judgment of The Charlotte Ledger. Any advertising, paid marketing, or sponsored content will be clearly labeled.

The Charlotte Ledger is published by Tony Mecia, an award-winning former Charlotte Observer business reporter and editor. He lives in Charlotte with his wife and three children.