CLEARWATER — Pinellas County commissioners in January went against the recommendation of an administrative judge and the advice of their own attorney when, for the second time, they blocked plans for a controversial apartment complex in Safety Harbor.
Unsurprisingly, the developer is now suing the county.
The lawsuit filed by the Richman Group says the county illegally denied the development and seeks financial damages to cover its costs for drawing up plans for a 246-unit apartment complex with 25,000 square feet of office space. The move may signal the company finally has abandoned its plans for the development that sparked heated protest from neighbors who said it was out of character with the small-scale homes in their community.
The complaint, filed in Pinellas circuit court, does not say how much money the company spent on the project, but it does say costs include fees to attorneys, surveyors, appraisers, architects, planners, engineers, environmental consultants and the cost of groundwater and soil testing. It also asks that the county pay its legal fees and compensate it for loss of interest on money that was tied up in the project.
Commissioners first denied the project in May 2013, even though the project was approved by the Safety Harbor City Commission and recommended by the Pinellas Planning Council. Commissioners said the development would use up scarce industrial land that could be turned into employment centers. The 34-acre site, home to a former citrus processing center, is viewed as one of the last large parcels of developable industrial land in built-out Pinellas.
But after Richman appealed the decision, an administrative law judge in November sided with the developer, saying that the county’s industrial land policy had not been incorporated into countywide rules and therefore did not apply to incorporated areas such as the one in Safety Harbor.
At the January meeting, County Attorney Jim Bennett told commissioners they were misinformed when they denied the project based on a 2006 planning council resolution intended to protect industrial land. Bennett recommended they follow the judge’s recommendation.
“The board was under the impression that a PPC resolution that had been adopted in ’06 was appropriately positioned to serve as a basis for a denial,” he said. “It was not. That could have been better explained.”
Despite his counsel, commissioners voted unanimously to deny the application again, aware that it could land the county in court.
“We’ve spent money fighting the will of the people, I have no problem spending some defending it,” Commissioner Norm Roche said at the meeting.
The lawsuit claims that in their denial commissioners acted in an ad hoc way and called it “an intentional and discriminatory exercise of power applied in an irrational and wholly arbitrary manner.”
It also cites other decisions by the commission when it approved rezoning industrial parcels, including the former Nielson property in Dunedin.
“We look forward to presenting our case to the judge,” said Scott McLaren, an attorney representing Richman Group.
Bennett did not return calls for comment.