NEW PORT RICHEY
Wayne Allen had big dreams for his scenic piece of waterfront property. The housing market was booming in 2005 when he and his wife, Susan, decided to split the property into two lots of choice real estate on the west bank of the Pithlachascotee River at Mandy Lane, just off River Road. Each lot would be just under an acre. There was already a 4,000-square-foot house with a pool on the property, but Allen, a longtime local homebuilder, saw more. He wanted to build two high-end homes, one on each lot, both three stories and in excess of 5,000-square-feet. At the time Allen anticipated he could eventually sell them for more than $1 million apiece.
It was a grand plan but for one shortcoming. The property was 115 feet wide, and city code mandated that lots be at least 60 feet wide, or 120 feet for the pair. So Allen asked for a variance for one lot to be 5 feet short.
The City Council liked the idea, and the variance sailed through in July 2005.
Then the couple demolished the home.
Then the city changed its mind.
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As Allen, 66, walked the still-vacant Mandy Lane property last week, he still can't believe how things went so wrong.
When he successfully obtained the variance eight years ago, he moved quickly on his plans to build the two houses on the split lot. The existing house was demolished to the tune of $13,000.
"It breezed past the council," he said of the variance request. "So we got the demolition permit from the city and took down the house."
But as Allen moved toward building on the newly created lots, things stalled. Dan Aldridge, a neighbor on Mandy Lane, sued the city, saying New Port Richey had failed to notify adjacent property owners of Allen's request for the variance.
Because of the lawsuit, the city refused to grant Allen a building permit for the new homes until the matter could be settled. Ultimately Allen's variance was rescinded and he had to start the process over.
It was not until April 2008 that Allen obtained a new hearing before City Council — this time with neighbors properly notified — to request the variance on the split lots. Aldridge was there with his attorney, who presented a detailed, two-hour case against Allen's proposal, arguing that Allen had failed to meet the criteria for variance requests laid out in city codes.
The council agreed. Allen's request for the variance was denied.
As he looked over his property recently, recalling the saga, Allen shook his head. He said he never would have demolished the home that existed on the property had he not relied on the original variance the city granted.
"It was devastating. It was a nice house with a pool, too," he said. "If I hadn't torn it down I would have remodeled it and would probably be living in it today."
Allen tried for years to sell the vacant land, without success. By that point the real estate market was in the tank and property values had plummeted.
At wit's end, he sought reparations from city officials but got nowhere.
He even had trouble finding an attorney to take his case until he found Tampa property rights and land-use attorney David Smolker.
Smolker filed a complaint last August stating the city had violated his client's vested property rights, causing the loss of the use and value of the two lots, the loss of the home, cost of ongoing property maintenance, and attorney's fees.
After several months, the two sides went into mediation and agreed to a settlement. Earlier this month the City Council unanimously voted to approve a $362,500 settlement.
The city agreed to pay the Allens $100,000 in October, followed by $100,000 in 2014, $62,500 in 2015, and $50,000 in both 2016 and 2017. City Council member Bill Phillips said in entering into the settlement, the city avoided a judgment in court that could have meant a multi-million-dollar payout.
"It appears it's about the best deal we can get today," Phillips said.
Smolker praised the city's decision to settle and said through mediation both sides made informed decisions after learning the risks of moving forward with the lawsuit.
"I believe the city felt that Mr. and Mrs. Allen had gotten a raw deal by what ultimately happened," Smolker said. "I think their decision had a sense of justice and fair play that was very refreshing."
Allen said he is pleased to have the lawsuit resolved, even though it will not fully make him whole on his investment in the property. He said he has sunk around $750,000 into it, so he will still take a hit of nearly $400,000 after the settlement until he can sell the property.
"I still just want to sell it," he said. "It could be a while, though. Property values are not where they should be right now."
After cutting the grass last week, he said he wished he could at least build a dock on the property. But the city denied the request for a simple reason:
There is no home there.