FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- On Fifth Avenue in the rapidly changing Flagler Village, a humble house surrounded by a forest of tropical trees looks like it's about to be swallowed by a five-story wall of pale gray concrete.
Julliano Jeyamo, the feisty owner of a tiny home now dwarfed by the mammoth high-rise that's sprouted next door, says he's been battling the project's big shot developer for two years - and losing.
It's a classic David and Goliath tale unfolding on a once sleepy street in Flagler Village, an up-and-coming neighborhood in downtown Fort Lauderdale fast being overtaken by high-rise apartments, where zoning changes have created a collision of old Fort Lauderdale and the flashy future.
Jeyamo, a 68-year-old native-born Israeli, says little guys like him are being pushed out. But he refuses to go.
"I don't want to sell," said Jeyamo, who bought the wood-framed cottage at 714 Northeast Fifth Avenue for $46,000 in 2001. "This is my house. I wouldn't sell it for any amount of money."
Jeyamo's home was built in 1931, long before the development boom hit Flagler Village - a boom courted by city leaders to transform a blighted area on the edge of downtown and secure Fort Lauderdale's status as the urban center of Broward County, all while lining city coffers with more tax dollars.
To encourage growth, city officials zoned the area high-density in the 1980s, allowing developers to build right up to property lines, regardless of what lies next door.
Jeyamo's modest two-bedroom home, all of 878 square feet, now sits in the shadow of what Jeyamo calls the monster project that borders his property: Quantum Flagler Village, a $160 million mixed-use development at 701 North Federal Highway with two 15-story apartment towers, a nine-story Marriott and a five-story parking garage that casts permanent shade on his yard.
Jeyamo says he lost more than peace and quiet when the construction cranes and buzzing chainsaws settled in next door. He also lost his lush green garden with its cheery burst of pink and yellow flowers. The peaceful sanctuary, so carefully tended over the years, now looks more like a place where things come to die, Jeyamo says.
'They killed my trees'
The royal palms that once lined his property stand dead as telephone poles, their green fronds missing. His foxtail palms are dead. So are the sabal palms, a tangerine tree and the old bonsai, a treasured gift from his grandfather.
"You can't imagine all the damage he did in my garden," he said. "My grandfather gave me a bonsai 30 years ago. They poured concrete on it and it's now dead. They killed my trees, all my shrubs. I lost my tangerine tree. The tree is dead now, all brown. My trees are dead for one reason, because they poured cement on them."
During construction, he claims cement and bricks rained down on his garden, killing trees and destroying his koi pond and water lilies. He also claims some palms were moved without his permission and later died.
Meanwhile, the developer's lawyer contends that Jeyamo signed an agreement allowing them access to his yard to work.
Two walls now cast a shadow on his yard, one to the east and another to the south.
With his home hemmed in by construction, Jeyamo says he's been forced to pick up trash that's landed in his yard on an almost daily basis: Styrofoam food containers, plastic bags, empty water bottles, and, he claims, bottles filled with urine.
Jeyamo points to a corner of his property where he says one of his palms used to live.
"They moved it without my permission," he said. "It was dead within six months."
Then, in a tired and weary voice, he said: "I don't think I'll ever get the garden back the way it was. I feel like I'm in a prison when I step outside."
He gestured to the tall gray wall overlooking his yard to the south.
"Alcatraz has a wall like that," he said.
Vincent Vaccarella, attorney for the developer, says his client has offered to move or replace the palm trees and is still hoping to work out a coordinated plan with Jeyamo, so crews can gain access to his property and finish their work on the exterior wall.
The high-rise project is due to be finished soon, but first the five-story wall facing Jeyamo's yard needs to be coated with stucco.
"The only way he can do the stucco is to go on my property," Jeyamo said. "But the trees are hugging the wall. They need to put up scaffolding to do the stucco and there's no room. And now the wall is not done. And people are wondering why."
A cry for help
As it turns out, the law is on the side of the developer.
Jeyamo insists the developer was required to build 5 feet from the property line. But the high-density zoning for Jeyamo's neighborhood allows developers to build right up to the property line, said Anthony Fajardo, Fort Lauderdale's director of Development Services.
Jeyamo says he's put in several calls to the office of Commissioner Steve Glassman complaining about the damage to his property, but so far Glassman has not paid him a visit.
Glassman says he has never spoken directly with Jeyamo but both of his commission assistants have.
"He's reached out to the office," said Glassman, who represents the neighborhood. "I'm sure everything was referred to code."
Glassman was surprised to hear that some of the trees are so close to the building that their trunks are touching the wall, leaving no room for scaffolding or stucco work.
"This is the first time I'm hearing of this kind of extreme situation," Glassman said. "This sounds like a very rare instance. I'm surprised it got this far."
Jeyamo faults city commissioners for approving the development. But in fact, they never even cast a vote.
Instead, it was approved by the city staff who serve on the Development Review Committee. The commission had the option of calling it up for review but never did, Fajardo said.
The Quantum project broke ground in mid-2019.
A year later, Jeyamo says he woke up to the noise of crews moving one of his palm trees without his permission. The trees had to be moved so the workers could dig a trench, Jeyamo says he was told.
In the days and weeks that followed, Jeyamo says he watched helplessly while workers dropped wet cement that turned to concrete, killing trees and damaging garden benches and statues.
The developer has agreed to remedy any damages to the property, Vaccarella says, but cannot do so without access to the property.
You're on your own, homeowner told
Jeyamo says he called code enforcement several times to complain about construction crews moving trees, destroying his garden and using his property as a construction site. They came out and took photos but told him there was nothing they could do, he said.
City records show that code enforcement came out to investigate but determined it was a civil dispute between the construction site and neighbor and closed the case.
For months, Jeyamo has refused to allow construction crews on his property to finish the stucco work on the wall of the parking garage that overlooks his garden.
Jeyamo says he's been dealing with Edward Abbo, Prime Group's chief operating officer, and pointed to what he calls a key piece of evidence, a description of a $5,500 check he says Abbo handed him on Sept. 21. The description says simply, "replacement trees."
But the developer says the money was paid in exchange for gaining access to Jeyamo's property. A copy of the check provided to the court by the developer says "access agreement."
According to a Sept. 24 agreement that bears Jeyamo's signature, he signed away his rights to sue the developer or to even complain about the project to city officials.
Vaccarella says Jeyamo knowingly and willingly signed the agreement and accepted payment.
"He had no problem cashing the check, but now doesn't want to honor the agreement," Vaccarella said.
But Jeyamo says he signed a blank paper at Abbo's request to prove he had accepted a check to cover damages to his property.
'I would never have signed that'
Jeyamo says the $5,500 check was meant to cover damages through February 2021, but he estimates total damages at more than $20,000.
"He tricked me," Jeyamo told the Sun Sentinel.
Jeyamo claims the first time he laid eyes on the three-page agreement granting the developer's workers permission to step foot on his property was on Oct. 15, when someone left it on his front door.
"It says I can't sue him and I can't even complain about him to the city," Jeyamo said. "I would never have signed that."
Jeyamo submitted a handwritten note to the court in December saying he never agreed to let construction workers on his property.
"I believe that private property ownership in the USA is a basic and sacred right and that the owner has a fundamental right to protect his property from further trauma or damage," his note said.
Prime Group, the Hollywood-based developer, took Jeyamo to court, hoping a judge would force him to let crews on his property so they can finish the job.
A judge ruled in the developer's favor in March, granting the emergency injunction.
"While he complains about purported damage to his property caused by the construction, the plain language of the agreement reflects that Prime has agreed to remedy any damage," Vaccarella said. "Prime cannot do so without access to the property. If he really wants the work done and any damage to his property repaired then he would have gone through with the agreement and allowed Prime access to do so. The property would have been restored to equal or better condition and we would be done."
Jeyamo has lawyered up and plans to appeal.
Attorney Michael Garcia, hired on Dec. 10, now represents Jeyamo.
"He really just wanted his peace and quiet," Garcia told the Sun Sentinel. "He just wants to be left alone and his property not damaged."
Abbo could not be reached for comment despite two texts and five calls to both his cell and work phones this week. A South Florida Sun Sentinel reporter also stopped by the site's construction office Tuesday and left a business card.
Vaccarella says his client has tried to work with Jeyamo.
"From our perspective, we are trying to be respectful and coordinate access," Vaccarella said. "But since December it's been frustrating for Prime to communicate with Mr. Jeyamo. It's been a parade of things that have kept [construction crews] from gaining access. He's denied access to the property. We've tried to be good neighbors. He's made a number of agreements that he's gone back on."
Jeyamo says he does not own a computer or smartphone and has no access to the Internet.
He keeps a folder filled with papers chronicling the saga that began when construction crews descended on his neighborhood.
From slum to hot spot
Local developer Charlie Ladd says he's heard rumblings about the ongoing dispute between Prime Group and Jeyamo, but called it a rarity.
"This is an unusual case," said Ladd, past president of the Fort Lauderdale Downtown Development Authority. "The whole thing's a shame. There's been dozens and dozens of buildings that have gone up downtown and there have not been complaints like this."
There's a reason the city changed the zoning to what it is today, Ladd said.
The neighborhood that's on fire today used to be a slum back in the 1970s and 1980s, he said. The zoning was changed to lure developers to invest in the area - and that's what's happening now.
Walter Daly, a neighbor of Jeyamo's, stopped by one day to survey the damage.
"It was such a beautiful garden, almost like a park," he said. "It's going to take a long time to get his property back the way it was. You can see how much damage has been done."
Daly looked around at all the dead trees and shook his head.
"Here he is trying to maintain the lush green of Old Florida," he said. "And now look at it. He worked on this for 20 years. And now it's all gone. They're trying to drive guys like him out with all this concrete."
If Jemayo ever decides to cash in, his property would likely sell for $800,000 or more, Ladd predicted.
"I have a hard time crying for these guys who have seen their property values skyrocket," Ladd said. "Do you know of anyone out there who gets upset that their property values have gone up? All they have to do is sell. If he's concerned about being pinched, he can sell his property for 10 times what it used to be worth."
But activist Clive Taylor Jr. praised Jeyamo for refusing to sell in a frenzied market where the all-mighty dollar is king.
"He should get a medal for being a holdout and saving a piece of history before our eyes," Taylor said.
President of the Hollywood Historical Society, Taylor grew up in Fort Lauderdale and still remembers what Jeyamo's street looked like before change came knocking.
"That house is an endangered species in that neighborhood," Taylor said. "That neighborhood was full of those little wooden cottages and now they're disappearing every day. This was where the working class lived in the 1930s and where these cottages were built. And now they're going away."