It might take the governor to decide where Leeper lives

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  • Nassau County Commissioner Danny Leeper says that the Florence Point Drive home that he and his wife own, which is outside the district he represents, was purchased as an investment and that he lives in a South Fletcher Avenue apartment located inside his district. NASSAU COUNTY PROPERTY APPRAISER'S OFFICE
    Nassau County Commissioner Danny Leeper says that the Florence Point Drive home that he and his wife own, which is outside the district he represents, was purchased as an investment and that he lives in a South Fletcher Avenue apartment located inside his district. NASSAU COUNTY PROPERTY APPRAISER'S OFFICE
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Where does Danny Leeper actually live? He claims it’s officially an apartment located in District 1, which he was elected to represent on the Nassau County Board of County Commissioners. His opponent in Tuesday’s election, John Martin, says Leeper does not, in fact, reside there.

If you ask Martin, Leeper lives on Florence Point Drive, in a house he owns with his wife, Kelly, in District 2. In the long run, it might depend on what the legal definitions are of the words “live,” “residence,” and “domicile.” But who wins the games being played with language and political money coming from outside of Nassau County will depend on who voters trust more in the Primary Election on Tuesday.

Property records show that both Leeper and his wife are listed as owners of the house on Florence Point Drive, that the house is not vacant, and that property receives a homestead exemption, which would require at least one of the owners to be living at the residence for a certain amount of time each year.

In late 2018, an anonymous letter was sent to the News-Leader, along with the Property Appraiser’s Office and the Florida Commission on Ethics, asking about Leeper’s homestead. At the time, Leeper told the News-Leader that his home address was on Pirate’s Bay Drive in District 1, a property currently owned by The Leeper Family Trust. Joe and Alberta Leeper, his parents, are listed as trustees.

Leeper no longer claims to live there with his parents, and now lists the apartment as his address.

In early 2019, Kevin Lilly, chief deputy at the Nassau County Property Appraiser’s Office, told the News-Leader that it was Leeper’s wife, Kelly, who filed the homestead exemption paperwork for the Florence Point property in District 2.

“We don’t know where he lives, but his wife was entitled to the exemption,” Lilly said, adding, “We have verified that (Danny Leeper) does not claim homestead exemption on another residence.”

Leeper says he bought the Florence Point Drive house as an investment. Leeper is a real estate agent for Amelia Island Plantation Real Estate, and said at a recent candidate forum that he has purchased and sold several such properties in Nassau County. At the candidate forum, Leeper was asked about the residency issue: “Where do you lay your head at night?” He answered, “It isn’t a requirement.”

Martin made it his business to put the question of Leeper’s residency out to the public. Martin hired a public investigator to stake out Leeper’s addresses on South Fletcher Avenue and Florence Point Drive.

The investigator produced a surveillance report on the comings and goings at Florence Point Drive, complete with the license numbers of cars and times of arrival and departure at the address. The investigator noted that Leeper’s car was in the driveway late at night and then early the following morning on two occasions, and that he went to Lowe’s once and came back to that residence.

The effort to inform the public of the controversy goes beyond Martin.

Mailers have been sent to Nassau County voters by Voters Response, a Political Action Committee with a Tallahassee address, that, according to the Florida Division of Elections, had no financial activity during 2019 and none in 2020 until June and July, when the organization spent $116,671, including on recent mailers that allege Leeper does not live in District 1.

Another PAC, Floridians for Positive Change, sent mailers that say, “Honest representation begins at home, and John Martin’s home is in District 1.”

The treasurer for Floridians for Positive Change is David Ramba, founder of Tallahassee-based Ramba Consulting. Ramba serves as a committeeman for the Republican Party of Florida, along with Martin. That group had no financial activity reported to the Division of Elections in 2018 or 2019, and none until July 2020, when it spent $16,405. None of the contributors to either PAC appear to be based in Nassau County.

Leeper says the focus on his residency is simply a distraction from the issues.

The county is currently in a three way legal battle with Raydient Places + Properties, the development branch of Rayonier Inc. and the East Nassau Stewardship District covering Wildlight, over who has to pay for the public community and regional parks there. Raydient donated thousands of acres there for parks and conservation land, but does not believe it has to pay to build, operate, or maintain them.

Circuit Judge James H. Daniel issued a finding in June that said “neither the Stewardship District nor Raydient or its subsidiaries are required to fund, construct, and maintain public community and regional parks: it is rather the county’s responsibility to do so,” according to an email from Alejandro Barbero, the director of strategic development and communications for Rayonier, Raydient’s parent company.

On Aug. 4, the county had its motion for a rehearing denied for just one of the counts in one of the lawsuits against it, which would involve actions taken by Leeper, as chairman of the BOCC.

“Counts I-V are at the beginning stage of the litigation and no deposition discovery has been conducted,” wrote Barbero.

Leeper believes the developer is behind the campaign against him: “I am deeply concerned and saddened over the recent action by my opponent, the large Nassau County corporate developer and their Political Action Committees,” Leeper wrote, alleging use of “false information, intimidation and mockery in an effort to suppress the voter turnout days before the election.” He claims the focus is on gaining control of the BOCC “and forcing taxpayers to be responsible for the estimated $50 million in recreational facilities into the development.”

The effort to end Leeper’s campaign also includes a group of citizens who have petitioned Gov. Ron DeSantis to simply remove Leeper from office for not being a resident of his district. A letter with the signatures of 11 people who live in Fernandina Beach was sent to the governor Aug. 3. The letter includes the private investigator’s report and claims, according to Florida statute, Leeper’s seat is technically vacant. The letter asks DeSantis to investigate the matter and, if DeSantis finds Leeper has not maintained residency, issue an executive order declaring his office vacant.

The News-Leader spoke to one of the people who signed the letter to DeSantis, Scott Golding.

Golding said he lives across the street from Leeper’s parents, the address Leeper said he lived at before he listed his address as South Fletcher Avenue. Golding said he knew from observation Leeper did not live with his parents. Golding said he has been making an effort to bring attention to the matter since February 2019, but those efforts “grew legs because of Mr. Martin’s publicity and bringing this up.”

As of Aug. 12, Golding had not received any response to the letter to the governor. The News-Leader contacted DeSantis’ office numerous times in reference to the letter to simply confirm that they had received it. None of those inquiries were returned by Thursday afternoon.

In response to that letter, Leeper sent his own to DeSantis’ office. In it, he says he has not filed for a homestead exemption in any district. Remember, it was Leeper’s wife who filed for it.

“I have met the legal residency requirements … and have always maintained my legal residency … since 2008. I believe the timing of the accusations set forth in the referenced letter is a vicious and aggressive attempt to influence the election ….”

In his letter to the News-Leader, Leeper said the effort of his opponent was an attempt to engage in voter intimidation or deprive voters of their choices on the ballot, and that he plans to contact the Florida Elections Commission for an opinion on his opponent’s actions.

“Make no mistake,” he said, “this election is not about my address.”

jroberts@fbnewleader.com