Oil spill claims: Plan to reconsider rejected business claims greeted warily


GULF SHORES, Alabama — Tourists might never know the name of his business, but Ron Kutter knows when they are not around.

And when they stopped visiting the beach over the summer, his business — Kutter’s Grounds Maintenance Inc. — came to a crawl.

For the last 16 years, he has provided landscaping for condominiums, restaurants and other businesses across south Baldwin County.

“If you’re in south Baldwin County, you’re in tourism,” Kutter said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re selling belts at Tanger, you’re affected by the traffic on (Ala.) 59.”

Kutter is now hopeful he will be paid, after Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon reported Monday that claims czar Ken Feinberg said he would reconsider previously denied claims for businesses not directly related to tourism.

It’s been a constant complaint from south Baldwin County officials for months, that doctors, title companies, car dealerships, landscapers and others were deemed ineligible for payment simply because their businesses did not rely on natural resources damaged by the spill.

A U.S. Department of Justice official asked Feinberg last week to reconsider such businesses if they are in a “purely coastal community that depends on visitors.”

Feinberg on Tuesday did not respond to several requests for comment from the Press-Register to elaborate on his comments to Kennon, which were made in a private meeting in Pensacola on Monday.

Kennon said Feinberg specifically said that a physician who does business in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores would now be deemed eligible for a payment.

Kutter lost several contracts when oil hit the beaches. Condo owners sliced expenses, and businesses serving tourists cut costs. His clients asked him to keep things simple. Some asked whether they could go without irrigation.

He filed a $76,000 claim with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, backed by letters for every job he lost because of the spill, and he was summarily denied without an explanation.

“Do I see encouragement? Yes,” he said Tuesday. “Am I apprehensive? Yes. I’m cautiously optimistic that there’s going to be some refined changes.”

Later this week, Kutter plans to speak to representatives with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility as part of a closed-door meeting in Gulf Shores with other business owners and elected leaders.

“I’m going to talk from the heart,” he said. “I’m not going in there with any rehearsal whatsoever. Even the most non-frugal person had to be frugal in 2010. It was a trickle down to everybody.”

Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft, who was not in the meeting with Kennon and Feinberg on Monday, has repeatedly tried to stress that businesses such as Kutter’s should receive oil spill claim payments.

“The door is cracked open, and that is a good sign,” Craft said Tuesday. “Hopefully, while the door is cracked, we’ll figure out a way to get through it.”

Thursday’s meeting would represent “a cross section of who’s been denied,” Craft said.

“Most of the businesses that are being represented here are part of the creation of this tourism community,” he said. “And they will play a role going forward, once we recover.”

Greg Kennedy, co-owner of Waves Shopping Center on West Beach Boulevard, was denied a claim for lost rent.

Earlier this week, he received a call from GCCF representatives, asking about his claim.

Like Kutter, Kennedy is wary.

“I’ll tell you this: I’m not going to spend the money till I get it,” Kennedy said. “I don’t know what to think. I don’t believe anything until it happens.”

(Press-Register Business Reporter Dan Murtaugh contributed to this report.)

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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