Burger tycoon’s battle for building permit reveals vulnerabilities of local homeowners

The saga of an expat businessman embroiled in a dispute with the Chapala government over paperwork requirements to obtain a building permit is a cautionary tale about unexpected troubles that can crop up for anyone owning or acquiring local property.

Clifford “Trip” Wilmot, the entrepreneur behind the popular hamburger stand at the Centro Laguna mall, partnered with his elderly mother three years ago to purchase a choice view lot in Riviera Alta, with the intention of building her an idyllic home to live out her final years. The undertaking has turned into a horrific ordeal surpassing his wildest nightmares.

Last year Wilmot submitted his blue prints for review and approval by the Riviera Alta homeowner’s architectural review committee in accordance with the subdivision’s bylaws. After some adjustments, the committee gave its seal of approval and he proceeded to Chapala’s Urban Planning Department (DDU) to apply for the requisite construction license.

To his dismay, the request was officially turned down through written notice issued by Blanca García Ramírez, chief of the DDU property regularization division. He was informed that in order to get the permit he would have to present a copy of a key document that was missing from the agency’s records. The Acta de Entrega-Recepción is a standard instrument that developers should file with the city upon completing installation of basic infrastructure that makes a residential complex habitable, such as functional water supply and sewage lines, paved roadways and street lighting.

Development history

pg11Without getting too deep in the weeds, Riviera Alta is a luxury gated community that has grown in stages over the past 15 years, involving various investors and development outfits in the process. The operational structure has also evolved from a compound condominium regime with each street set up as a separate condo unit, into a single condominium managed collectively by the homeowners through a board of directors and administrative staff.

Most of Riviera Alta’s 71 standing residences have been built in the sections of the complex that were developed early on and properly registered with the municipal government. The wrench in the works for Wilmot was buying a lot in a newer section called Sotogrande, located at the top end of the subdivision.  The necessary infrastructure is there, but apparently developers failed to submit the delivery-reception act to DDU.

Wilmot is understandably miffed at being stymied by a bureaucratic snag not of his own making. More so, since the missing paperwork was not an impediment to property owners who were allowed to finish construction of two homes on the same Sotogrande street several years ago and another who is now building on a lot two doors away from his.

Interviewed by this newspaper, DDU director José Barajas Gómez explained that Wilmot has been singled out because the document glitch was not discovered until recently, only after building permits for the other three properties had been granted.

It’s a credible argument based on numerous public statements by Mayor Javier Degollado concerning widespread administrative disarray in regard to legally mandated arrangements between municipal authorities and homeowner associations (HOAs) that manage public services and common areas within the boundaries of both open and gated subdivisions.

Weighing in on the topic, City Hall’s top legal officer Oscar España Ramos declared that among approximately 100 fraccionamientos (subdivisions) located in Chapala territory, only a half dozen are fully up to date on requisite documentation. That might include finalized papers from developers among other DDU records, legal agreements to administer services that must be renewed with each three-year change of administration, and copies of the certified minutes from all homeowner association assemblies.

Previous conflicts and snafus covered by the Guadalajara Reporter give evidence to chronic remiss by officials in Chapala’s legal department and HOA officers in keeping the records in due order. Over more than a decade of public information requests, the legal department has never produced a complete list of HOA board members and contact data.

Mounting frustration

pg12Feeling backed into a corner, Wilmot decided to go through legal channels to defend his case. Armed with a court order date October 23, 2017 that prohibits the government from halting the project, he attempted to proceed with construction in late November. Guards posted at the subdivision entry gate denied entry to the work crew, but Wilmot raised the gate bar and let them in. City Hall officials appeared shortly afterwards to slap a closure order on the site, wrapping it with yellow tape without giving Wilmot a written citation. A backhoe brought in to level the lot was subsequently removed by the owner.

The conflict came to a head on December 29 when Wilmot, his architect and workmen returned to the property. Alerted by security guards, Barajas promptly showed up in company of legal advisor Carlos Hernández del Toro, several police officers and other City Hall personnel. As revealed in video footage of the incident, the lawyer cited a ruling from another court that found Wilmot’s request for suspension of government action against him was inadmissible. He then instructed police to detain Wilmot and his architect on the premise they were caught violating the closure tapes surrounding the lot, a criminal offense.

The two men were handcuffed briefly as they were loaded into the police patrol unit. They were taken to the Ministerio Público (public prosecutor) headquarters in Chapala, where they remained under police watch for several hours until Wilmot’s attorneys arrived and gained their release. They were never presented with a written arrest warrant, formally jailed, nor charged with committing a crime.

In January Wilmot’s lawyers filed for a federal amparo injunction that was admitted, essentially shielding him from verbal harassment by the authorities until a definitive decision is reached on a civil suit lodged against local government agencies and the Riviera Alta board of directors.

Barajas says he regrets that Wimlot has chosen to challenge the DDU’s bona fide stance rather than going after the developers guilty of problematic omissions. He denies hints of discrimination against foreigners, noting that at least 166 expats have received building permits under his watch. However, so far neither he nor Garcia have responded to this reporter’s appeal for the identification of subdivisions that lack complete urbanization records and hard figures on other petitioners who have been denied building permits.

On February 8, the Riviera Alta board released a letter to Lisa L. Jorgensen refuting allegations published in the January 30 article she published in the Lake Chapala Reporter, an on-line magazine that has no affiliation whatsoever with the Guadalajara Reporter.

Her account of the Wilmot case, entitled “Local Expat Trapped in Suspected Building Permit Bribery Scam,” asserts that that Riviera Alta has been uncooperative in helping Wilmot obtain a copy of the Sotogrande developer’s final paperwork. The author also insinuates that the board has been complicit in blocking issuance of the construction license and may be party to an under-the-table palm-greasing deal to sort out the matter.  The board adamantly denies all of the veiled accusations.

Speaking with this newspaper, Riviera Alta treasurer John King doubled down on the board’s posture. He insists that while it is up to the DDU and the developer to resolve the matter of the missing documentation, the board is now trying to track down the responsible parties to facilitate compliance. He recognizes that fixing the problem is in the subdivision’s best interests. As for the building permit, he says Wilmot has to fight his own battle on that front.

In a recent press conference, Wilmot stated that he is determined to stand his ground and pursue legal avenues in defense of his entitlement to justice and fundamental rights. Meanwhile the construction of his mother’s residence remains in limbo.