A circuit judge ruled Wednesday that Pinellas County commissioner intentionally denied a developer its constitutional rights by failing to grant a proposed zoning and land use change.
Now, the county must pay $16.5 million in lost profits and interest to the Richman Group of Florida. The county must also pay attorneys’ fees to Ed Armstrong and Scott McLaren of the Clearwater firm Hill Ward Henderson for representing Richman in the lawsuit. It’s unclear how much those fees might be. A hearing will be scheduled to determine the amount.
Armstrong and McLaren did not comment but issued a written statement: “The evidence in the case was overwhelming that Richman’s constitutional rights were violated. [Our] client was very pleased that the court protected those rights.”
Pinellas County Administrator Mark Woodard could not be reached for comment.
The case arose out of a 2012 request that the city of Safety Harbor rezone a 34.55-acre parcel of land at the intersection of McMullen-Booth Road and 10th Street so that it could 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.
The proposal won preliminary approval with a 3-2 vote from the Safety Harbor City Council. The proposal had to win the county’s approval before it went back before the Safety Harbor council for the final OK.
But, after hearing from 308 residents opposed to the development, Pinellas County commissioners turned down the proposal saying they believed in the preservation of “industrial” land.
Richman appealed to an administrative law judge who said the Commission was wrong when it denied the rezoning to preserve industrial land. Preservation of industrial land is not mentioned in the land code as one of the criteria the county commission can follow in deciding zoning and land use cases.
The case went back to the county commissioners where their attorney explained they were bound to follow the administrative judge’s ruling about what they could consider in deciding the case. In other words, the attorney told them they could only follow the six rules in the county land code but could not use “preservation of industrial land” as a reason for denying the zoning and land-use change. He warned them that using that as a basis to turn down the request could open them to a lawsuit and liability.
Commissioners ignored that advice and voted unanimously to turn down the request.
Circuit Judge Walter Schafer quotes three of the commissioners in his 30-page order Wednesday:
Ken Welch called the failure to include preservation of industrial land in the code was a “technical glitch” and indicated he would stick with his vote.
Then-commissioner Norm Roche said that turning down the request would “set a precedent that we will stand by the letter of the law. … As far as going through with a lawsuit, or fear of a lawsuit, I don’t care. We’ve spent money defending or fighting for the will of the people, and I have no problem spending some defending it.”
John Morroni referred to the many opponents and how professional they had been. He added: “There’s nobody other than the applicant who’s in support of this thing. So I’m not changing my vote either.”
Schafer also noted that Morroni said he had “always spoken in favor of saving our industrial” but that statement was not borne out by the facts. Morroni, the judge said, voted — on at least three separate occasions — for changing industrial to residential.
It appeared, Schafer wrote, that neighborhood opposition was the real reason behind the commission’s decision. But that is also not a criterion for such a decision.