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The Brognano family: Big campaign gifts appear to pay off

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of September 13, 2012)
Photo: The Brognano family offices in Sebastian.

Over the past five years, the Daniel J. Brognano family – owners of Ameron Homes on Easy Street in Sebastian – appears to have proven that being the biggest contributor to local political campaigns can pay off.

During this period, Brognano, his sons and their homebuilding company contributed nearly $30,000 to local candidates, much of it to County Commissioners Bob Solari, Wesley Davis and Joe Flescher.

In return, the County Commission on three-to-two votes:

- Rejected a recommendation from staff that would have required sand mines to be a “special exception” to zoning regulations, paving the way for the Wild Turkey Estates sand mine – in which Brognano’s son Todd is a partner – to become the first to open since a 2008 moratorium was lifted.

- Named Todd Brognano to the county Planning and Zoning Commission to fill the seat of an environmentalist who served on the panel when it adopted tougher new sand mining regulations.

The three who voted for these changes:  Solari, Davis and Flescher.

Perhaps this is all just coincidence. Commissioner Davis and Commissioner Solari strongly denied that their votes were influenced by the Brognanos’ campaign contributions.  Commissioner Flescher did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Daniel Brognano, who lives in the Oceanside subdivision on Vero’s south beach, could not be reached but Todd Brognano said his family has always been involved in local politics in Sebastian, and their political contributions go to elected officials who are pro-business.

“We believe that for a community to survive, it has to have business-minded people at the helm,” he said.

But following the money trail makes very interesting reading.

In his 2008 campaign for the County Commission, Solari took $800 from Daniel J. Brognano of Captain’s Walk, Vero Beach 32963; $500 from Daniel Brognano Jr. of Genessee Avenue in Sebastian; $1,000 from William Brognano of Sebastian; and $700 from Todd Brognano of Sebastian for a total of $3,000. On top of that, Ameron Homes gave Solari $1,000 for a total of $4,000 that election cycle.  In the just completed 2012 election, Solari got $2,000 from the Brognanos.

Solari said the Brognanos have never asked for any special treatment from him as a commissioner, and as for whether their generous support swayed his votes, he replied, “Absolutely not.”

How important is the Brognanos’ campaign cash to Solari?

“They’re supporters. I think every supporter is an important supporter,” Solari said.

In 2008, Wesley Davis took $600 from Todd Brognano, $500 from William Brognano and $500 from the Daniel J. Brognano Trust, plus $1,000 from Ameron Homes for a total of $2,600.  Davis this year was unopposed for re-election, but still got $200 from the Brognanos.

Davis said the Brognano’s support did not influence his vote on the mining issue and did not prompt him to vote Todd Brognano onto the P & Z Commission.

“No, I don’t ever make a decision like that. I make a decision on what is right at the time,” Davis said.

In 2006, Joe Flescher received $500 from Ameron Homes. Then in 2010, Joe Flescher got $500 from Daniel Brognano and $500 from Todd Brognano.

Another big beneficiary of Brognano cash has been Congressman Bill Posey, who has received $3,650.

During the housing boom, Ameron Homes blanketed the Sebastian Highlands, Collier Creek Estates, San Sebastian Springs and Sebastian Lakes area with upscale single-family homes.

Brognano’s sons branched out into other businesses – Todd as a partner in the 835-acre Wild Turkey sand mine which opened out on 82nd Avenue about three weeks ago, and William going into pest control, where he was just awarded the contract for all the City of Sebastian buildings.

Daniel Brognano, who lives on the barrier island and restores antique cars, is known to be equally passionate about local politics, and has a reputation for being as adept at tuning men as he is with tuning machines.

So with the economy in the tank, the Brognanos began spreading money around among local politicians who favored development. 

The county had said “enough” on sand mines just before the housing market took a nosedive and demand for gravel, sand and the material used to level up roads, parking lots and homesites plummeted. So it seemed a long-shot that a new mine would get approved.

In fact, the county staff strongly recommended that commissioners vote to raise the hurdle that mines like the Wild Turkey Estates sand mine would need to surmount. Staffers called for there to be a “special exception,” which would require a zoning change.

But in a rare act of open defiance to their “experts,” three commissioners voted that sand mines should be simply a permitted use, and not a special exception. Gary Wheeler and Peter O’Bryan sided with the staff and voted in favor of the special exception requirement.

As it happens, the Brognanos had backed Gary Parris to the tune of $1,600 in 2008 in an effort to unseat Wheeler, and had backed Tom Lowther in 2006 his unsuccessful race against O’Bryan.

In the one remaining County Commission race this year, the Brognanos seem to be hedging their bets, giving $600 so far to architect Tony Donadio and $1,000 to homebuilder Tim Zorc.

The maximum donation per person or business entity is $500 for the primary election and $500 for the general election. To donate as much as the Brognanos did, checks had to be written from different family members and Ameron Homes to keep from violating state election laws.

In addition to supporting County Commission candidates, the Brognanos in this year’s primary election gave $2,000 to challenger Bill McMullen in his unsuccessful race against Sheriff Deryl Loar. Other contributions in the past four years have included $3,650 to the Friends of Bill Posey and  $1,000 to the pro-development Common Ground PAC for a total of roughly $30,000 since the moratorium was imposed on new sand mines.

The Planning and Zoning Commission, which ushered in that moratorium and new regulations that Todd Brognano complained “added $30,000 to the cost of opening” the Wild Turkey mine last month, probably won’t do something like that again.

On Feb. 1, 2011, Solari, Davis and Flescher voted to appoint Todd Brognano to an at-large seat on the Indian River County Planning and Zoning Commission.

O’Bryan, who joined Wheeler in not voting for Brognano, raised concerns that adding him would give business interests too much power on that board, specifically noting the role P & Z plays in the crafting and review of mining ordinances.

“For the last several years the composition of the P & Z board had been very balanced. We had some business folks on there, we had some environmental folks. I think we had very good balance, all aspects of the community on there,” O’Bryan said during the Feb. 1 commission meeting.

Brognano replaced Dr. David Cox, a respected environmental consultant with a doctorate in population biology and ecology and nearly 30 years experience in the field.

But Davis, who supported Brognano, said: “I believe that the environmental side of things has been very well represented with Mr. Jens Tripson.”

Tripson, who owns a nursery and tree farm, is a long-time Pelican Island Audubon Society leader and avid conservationist. He’s also one vote of seven on the P & Z board – hardly enough to block anything.