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$16.5 million judgment – political game changer in Pinellas commission race?

in The Bay and the 'Burg by

When a judge ruled last month that the Pinellas County Commission had violated a developer’s constitutional rights by denying a zoning and land use change, he did more than hand the company a win.

The judge also handed Mike Mikurak a club he could use in his race against Charlie Justice for the District 3 at-large seat on the commission. Justice, like all the other commissioners, had voted to refuse the zoning and land-use change that sparked the lawsuit and eventual judgment.

“I’m gravely concerned about it,” Mikurak, a Republican, said Monday. The ruling proves there’s a “real lack of leadership, a lack of planning and a real lack of concern for taxpayers’ dollars.”

He added, “They owe [taxpayers] an apology.”

Justice, a Democrat, doesn’t see it that way. Mikurak, he said, is seizing on the court’s decision because he has no other specific issues to object to.

“He’s trying to find something,” Justice said. “I don’t expect it to be a game changer. … Campaigns do what campaigns do. … We expect to be victorious in November.”

The ruling arose from a 2012 request by the Richman Group of Florida for the city of Safety Harbor to rezone a 34.55-acre parcel of land at the intersection of McMullen-Booth Road and 10th Street. Richman wanted to build a 246-unit apartment complex and 25,000-square-feet of single story office space. To accomplish this, the land — which had several zoning designations — had to be rezoned to residential. About 15.8 acres of the larger property was zoned industrial.

A split Safety Harbor council gave it preliminary approval; then it went to the county commission for adoption. Had the commission approved, it would have gone back to the Safety Harbor council for final approval.

But the county, confronted with protests from more than 300 residents, did not approve. Commissioners said they wanted to “preserve” industrial lands. It has since been added. Richman appealed to an administrative law judge, who sent the case back to the commission saying they had erred because preservation of industrial lands was not part of the county land code. (It has since been added.)

When it came back to county commissioners, their attorney told them they had to stick to the legalities as set out by the administrative judge. That meant they could not turn down the zoning and land-use request based on preservation of industrial land. If they did, then they risked a lawsuit and liability. All seven commissioners ignored that advice and turned down the request.

Richman sued and got a $16.5 million judgment for lost profits and interest. The judge also granted Richman attorney’s fees, which have not been determined, but will up the sum. And, daily interest is compounding on the multi-million-dollar judgment.

Justice said Monday that it’s likely the commission will appeal the ruling. Commissioners, he said, are confident it will be overturned, and the county will owe Richman nothing.

Win or lose, an appellate decision will likely come after the Nov. 8 election. The judgment, as it stands, will be what voters have in front of them on election day.

Mikurak said he thinks many voters will be angry enough to spurn Justice. Commissioners, he said, not only did not listen to their attorney, they ignored the administrative law judge, and overruled a decision by the Safety Harbor council. It appears, he said, that they put themselves above the law.

“That decision was made by the city for the city,” Mikurak said. “I don’t believe the county commission had any right” to override the Safety Harbor council.

Mikurak said he’s also wondering where the county intends to get the money to pay the judgment, interest and attorney’s fees.

“I want to know how they are going to pay for this,” he said.

Justice said he’s sticking with his vote. He pointed out that the decision to turn down the developer’s request was unanimous. And, he said, it was made by a commission of four Republicans and three Democrats.

As for how the board plans to pay the judgment, Justice said, “Well, I’m confident it will be overturned.”

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