The battle over a $16.5 million court judgment isn’t over yet for Pinellas County.
Weeks after Florida’s 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled the county doesn’t have to pay the $16.5 million judgment for rejecting a Safety Harbor apartment complex, the developer has asked the court for a new hearing.
The Richman Group of Florida wants the full appellate court to rehear the case, saying the 3-0 decision made by a small panel of judges "undermines basic constitutional rights, the issues in this case are of immense importance requiring" a hearing before the full court.
County commissioners and county attorneys, who celebrated last month’s court victory, weren’t surprised by the appeal.
"It’s a normal thing that happens," County Commission chair Janet Long said. "That option is open to them."
The case goes back to the Pinellas County Commission’s 2013 decision to reject allowing the construction of a 246-unit, three-story luxury apartment complex with 25,000 square feet of office space in Safety Harbor.
The Richman Group needed approval from the Safety Harbor City Commission and the Pinellas County Commission for a zoning amendment to change the 35-acre site near State Road 590 and McMullen-Booth Road from industrial to residential use.
City commissioners approved the change in February 2013. But three months later, county commissioners unanimously denied it. They pointed to a county policy aimed at preserving industrial land to bring more jobs to the area. They also sided with the dozens of residents who spoke out against the project at meetings and in letters.
Richman sued, and three years later, won. Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Walter Schafer Jr. ruled the county commission based its decision to halt the project "on a desire to appease Safety Harbor residents" instead of county policy.
The county appealed, and in November the 2nd DCA ruled that Pinellas doesn’t owe the developer for damages and interest. The appellate judges wrote that "the trial court erred in concluding that the County had no rational basis to deny the proposed amendment, we reverse the final judgment."
The 2nd DCA also found that county commissioners did not violate the U.S. Constitution when they factored residents complaints when deciding to reject the project.
That argument is at the heart of Richman’s request for a new hearing.
Richman attorney Scott McLaren wrote that the panel’s decision "eliminates class of one equal protection claims where any member of the public has stated a generalized and unsubstantiated objection that is purportedly grounded in public health, safety, morals, or general welfare.
"As a result, local governments will be emboldened to discriminate with impunity, without fear of liability... This result is not only contrary to this Court’s prior precedent, it is contrary to the United States Constitution and the United States Supreme Court’s decisions interpreting it."
Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente