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Tabloid heir vs. pricey, private Fisher Island in Florida

Fisher Island — swanky playground to the likes of Andre Agassi, Mel Brooks, Julia Roberts, Boris Becker, Oprah, and other luminaries, the place proclaimed the richest ZIP Code in all the land by Forbes magazine, the shiny bauble that glitters like Oz to the south as you drive to Miami Beach on the MacArthur — is finding out that life isn’t always champagne wishes and caviar dreams.

In a 2,500-word takedown published a month ago, The New York Times shredded the sun-dappled, peacock-inhabited island, which has seen property values remain flat while the luxury condo prices market has heated up elsewhere.

Under the obligatory Paradise Lost headline, the travel story by Alessandra Stanley used phrases like “alarmed by the prices no place to sit and have a glass of wine plastic forks, a plastic foam cup and paper napkins mistakenly overcharged almost $500,” and: “a class system that places short-term guests below the salt.”

And so on.

The CEO of the private island — named after the developer of Miami Beach, home to the famed Vanderbilt mansion, accessible only by boat — was promptly shown the door.

If that wasn’t galling enough, a disgruntled former denizen of the sunny enclave is now on the warpath. He’s infuriated that the Fisher Island club, which runs the golf course and the rentals — everything that is not a private residence — forced him to cancel a sumptuous Memorial Day party at the last minute, leaving his guests literally standing at the mainland ferry launch without a paddle.

That frustrated party thrower is Paul Pope — Pope as in the son of the late Generoso Pope Jr., as in the man who turned the National Enquirer into the biggest-selling supermarket tabloid in the United States. It was sold after his death for more than $400 million.

Paul Pope, heir to that tabloid fortune, is about as unsubtle as the weekly paper’s red-meat content, stories with screaming headlines about celebrities with cellulite, politicos who cheat, and O.J. He penned a 396-page tome about his dad and granddad, The Deeds of My Fathers, subtitled “How My Grandfather and Father Built New York and Created the Tabloid World of Today.” He hands out not just the book, but a promotional DVD and branded totebag.

During his younger, fast-living days, Pope wasn’t just part of the tabloid empire, but a source of gossip-page fodder.

Now Pope, who says the party fiasco cost him $50,000, is swinging haymakers at Fisher Island.

“I would imagine the Vanderbilts are spinning in their graves at the steady decline of this once-magnificent, singularly spectacular resort,” Pope sneered with typical grandiosity.

Pope didn’t exactly utter those words. He handed out a three-page pamphlet of “quotes and talking points,” including the aforementioned witticism, and let the reporter graze at will.

Another Pope zinger: “I’ve been in jail, and being on Fisher Island over Memorial Day weekend was somehow worse — even in prison you’re allowed to have guests.”

(Pope isn’t kidding about the “I’ve-been-in-jail” riff. He was busted in November 2007 on charges he roughed up his then-girlfriend, mother of one of his three children. The battery charge was later dropped).

Yes, parts of Fisher Island, which features a nine-hole course, more than a dozen tennis courts, two boat marinas and a tropical bird aviary, are messy right now. That’s apparently because the island is three years into a $60 million renovation plan, with signs of disarray everywhere. The main spa is closed for improvements and the Vanderbilt — one of the most coveted wedding spots in town — is an active construction site.

Pope, 44, of Weston, says he was a frequent guest on the island, spending more than $1 million there over the past 15 years. For Memorial Day, he rented a two-bedroom condo on the island (at $1,400 per night) specifically to host the family-friendly cookout for 70 people.

The club put the kibosh on the cookout, pointing to island policy allowing just four guests per customer, and apprehension on the part of the condo’s owners. (They may have been scared off by Pope’s hard-partying past, which he calls his “Caligula” days.)

Pope, who has sent the island’s management a letter of intent to sue, couldn’t get a hold of all his invitees, and many of them showed up the day of the party — only to be turned away at the ferry, the only way on and off the island.

That wasn’t Pope’s only beef. The unit he rented (for some $30,000 over his three-week stay) featured a broken Jacuzzi, a lamp missing light bulbs and bed linens that were torn and stained. Alessandra Stanley, for the record, wrote that her unit, a courtyard garden villa costing $800 a night, was “splendid and excellent” except for a malfunctioning Jacuzzi that nearly roasted her daughter’s toe, but groused about just about everything else, including her teenager’s habit of sleeping late.

Jose Valdes-Fauli, a club board member, admits that the island has a few rough edges during its transition period — but says the Times piece and Pope’s gripes are blown way out of proportion.

Fisher Island resident Jill Eber — one-half of the wildly successful real estate tag team known as “The Jills” — agreed.

“I believe that there are things that can definitely be tweaked, improved, but everyday you’re there, you still love the experience of being there,” said Eber, an 11-year resident of Fisher Island . “I think the island’s been doing great. In fact, I believe that Fisher Island is completely undervalued.”

Recent sales figures actually suggest she’s right. According to real estate analyst Peter Zalewski of Condo Vultures, the median price of the 15 Fisher properties sold since the new year is $646 per square foot — off 4 percent from the 16 sold in the first five months of 2011. By comparison, the median sales price of the 138 units sold at the elite, recently opened St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort & Residences: nearly $1,500 per square foot.

“Fisher Island is far from the most expensive place in town,” said Zalewski, who thinks that the flatter-than-expected property values are due in part to the community’s aging infrastructure, the hassle of the ferry system, and the requirement that most properties buy an equity stake in the club — likely a six-figure proposition.

Then there are the service complaints, which likely cost Larry Brown his job. Brown had been the club’s chief executive officer since 2008. Some believe the Times piece was his coup de grace.

The board will soon formally announce Brown’s replacement: Bernard Lackner, who last served as general manager of New York’s Hotel Plaza-Athénée, where the travel guide Frommer’s says “service here is as good as it gets, with personalized check-in and attentive staff at every turn.”Added Valdes-Fauli: “The club has a new manager who comes from a five-star hotel, who will be able to keep Fisher Island in the five-star status that we expect to have.”

That comes as little consolation to Paul Pope. Fisher Island has seen his last dime, he says, and he won’t return even if friends who are residents invite him.

Valdes-Fauli’s not too broken up about that.

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