Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Developer demands legal fees from Pasco residents fighting proposed apartments

NEW PORT RICHEY — The developer of an apartment complex that has drawn legal challenges from several neighborhood associations has demanded that homeowners reimburse it for more than $27,000 in attorney fees or face a lawsuit.

"I am hopeful that this matter will be amicably resolved," wrote Kent G. Whittemore, attorney for Clearwater-based Scherer Development, who sent a letter on April 4 giving the presidents of three homeowners associations until the end of the month to send the money. "If however, it is not, my client will have no alternative but to seek its full damages against all of those legally responsible," the letter said.

The associations, which represent neighborhoods heavily populated with retirees, have been fighting efforts by Scherer to build the Oaks Apartments at Riverside Village, on land off Amazon Drive.

In September, county staffers approved plans for the complex, which call for a first phase of six two-story units, a 3,000-square-foot clubhouse, swimming and splash pools, a playground, picnic pavilions, tennis and basketball courts, a mulched car wash area, a 2-acre park with an open play area, parking lots and seven garages. County staffers said the development meets or exceeds all land use requirements, and the land is already zoned as multifamily.

Last month, the Development Review Committee, a group made up of the county's top administrators, rejected the homeowners' appeal of the staff decision. The homeowners then vowed to appeal to the Pasco County Commission, and if that fails, to court.

Shortly after the project was proposed, opponents of the proposed complex started a group called We Are 5533 Strong, hired an attorney and set up a website. They found an ally in state Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, a former resident of the area who spoke up for them at a county meeting, where they expressed concerns about flooding, traffic and reduced property values.

"The threatened suit is basically a blackmail effort by the developer," said Fasano, who issued a statement Tuesday along with state Rep. Richard Corcoran that called Scherer a bully. "It is outrageous and disgraceful that a deep-pocketed developer would threaten to take to court ordinary citizens who have every legal right to protest a proposed action in their own back yard."

The expenses Whittemore cited in the letter stem from a separate front: the homeowners' appeal of state drainage permits issued by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The presidents of Heritage Lakes and two Cedarwood Village condo associations asked for a review by the state Division of Administrative Hearings. But they withdrew the appeal after deciding to pursue the issue through local government channels.

"This is baseless and has no merit," said Marcy LaHart, a Gainesville attorney representing the three homeowners' associations. "They exercised their due process rights in good faith."

She said the letter was simply a way to intimidate the residents so that they don't pursue the matter before the Pasco County Commission.

Lawsuits filed to discourage members of the public from challenging issues before governmental agencies are called "SLAPP" suits, or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.

Florida law prohibits any governmental entity from suing "a person or entity without merit and solely because such person or entity has exercised the right to peacefully assemble, the right to instruct representatives, and the right to petition for redress of grievances before the various governmental entities of this state, as protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and (the Florida Constitution)."

Another state law applies only to homeowners in a homeowners' association and prohibits suits by individuals and business and governmental entities based on homeowners' "appearance and presentation before a governmental entity on matters related to the homeowners' association."

However, the law does say a defendant who can show that a losing plaintiff brought a claim without any factual or legal support for it to recover attorney fees from the other side.

Whittemore was in court Tuesday and could not be reached for comment.

LaHart said her clients appealed the drainage permits without a lawyer and should not have caused Scherer to incur that much cost.

"If they really spent $27,000 to defend a petition filed by a pro se litigant," she said, "then I obviously don't charge enough for my time."

Developer demands legal fees from Pasco residents fighting proposed apartments 04/09/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 9, 2013 8:12pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Chasing 125: Bucs hope to hit rushing goal more often


    Ever so often, Bucs coach Dirk Koetter pulls back the curtain a bit and shares some of the stats that matter to him most as a coach.

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter walks the field during the second day of mandatory minicamp at One Buccaneer Place in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday, June 14, 2017.
  2. Two Boca Ciega students arrested on charges they brought gun to high school football game


    PINELLAS PARK — Two Boca Ciega High School students were arrested for having a loaded semi-automatic handgun with them at a Friday night football game at Pinellas Park High School.

    Two Boca Ciega High School students were arrested for bringing a weapon on school property on Friday night at a high school football game at Pinellas Park High School.
  3. Bucs-Jaguars was NFL's lowest-rated ESPN game since 2005


    It is just the preseason, and it is the Jaguars, but Thursday night's Bucs-Jags preseason game earned a 1.6 rating on ESPN, which is the lowest-rated preseason game (excluding NFL Network) in 12 years, according to Sports Media Watch.

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, left, talks with coach Dirk Koetter during the first half of an NFL preseason football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
  4. Crash at U.S. 19 in Pinellas Park kills one, shuts down traffic


    PINELLAS PARK — A man is dead after a crash between two cars at the intersection of U.S. Highway 19 and 70th Avenue N just after 7 a.m. Saturday.

    Pinellas Park police are investigating the death of a man during a crash on U.S. 19 early Saturday. (Pinellas Park police)
  5. Tropics watch: The latest on Harvey and what systems could hit Florida


    While Eastern and Central America monitor the progress of Tropical Storm Harvey, two tropical disturbances are moving through the Atlantic.