Romano: Fighting the man to the tune of $16 million


This is a story of lawsuits and precedents. Developers and politicians. It’s a story of one staggering court award, and one stupefying reversal.

But we’re going to ignore all of that for a moment, and instead go to what the story is really about.

To a January morning in 2014 at a Board of County Commissioners meeting in Pinellas County. The room is jammed with residents from Safety Harbor. They are there to beg commissioners to fight an administrative law ruling allowing an out-of-town developer to build a 246-unit apartment complex on the outskirts of their funky, waterside town.

"We don’t have a lot of money; we don’t have fancy lawyers,’’ Safety Harbor resident Les Buchanan told the commission. "We’re just citizens. We have you to help us.’’

Nearly four years later, when the lawyers were done talking, the residents got what they wanted. And the commissioners dodged a bullet when an appellate court reversed a $16.5 million judgment levied against the county for essentially killing the project.

Here, then, is the rare story of normal folks fighting back.

And winning.

"There’s a huge lesson here for our residents,’’ Commissioner Janet Long said. "People really do have a say in their government, and we really do care what they are saying.’’

• • •

For the longest time, a happy ending seemed too much to hope for. The apartment complex was an on-again, off-again affair through much of 2013-14. Safety Harbor officials approved the project, but Pinellas commissioners refused to rezone the property from industrial to residential after hearing from residents concerned about congestion and other issues.

An administrative law judge looked at the case, and recommended Pinellas reverse its decision. Then-County Attorney Jim Bennett publicly advised commissioners to reverse their decision.

They declined. Unanimously.

The developer, the Richman Group, sued and won. The complex was no longer going to be built, but Pinellas County was now ordered to pay the Richman Group $16.5 million in damages.

Commissioners were warned that, should they appeal and lose again, the interest and fees could bring the judgment to $20 million.

So, if you’re keeping score, that means an administrative judge, a circuit judge and the county attorney had told commissioners they had erred.

The commissioners appealed anyway.

It was around this time that I started paying closer attention to the case. Based on everything I’d heard, I thought commissioners were, um, incorrect in their decision to appeal. Delusional, I believe, is the word I used.

Turns out, a District Court of Appeal disagreed.

The judges reversed the $16.5 million judgment, just as commissioners predicted.

"There was the fundamental principle of an elected body being able to determine the way the county will grow,’’ said Commissioner Ken Welch. "If we can’t make those decisions, why even come before us?

"In this post-Citizens United world, this becomes a question of who elected officials represent, and it made the decision that much more important.’’

If I can skip all the legal terms, the lawsuit basically accused the county of allowing a mob to chase the developers out of the neighborhood. It pointed out that Pinellas County had approved similar zoning requests numerous times, and the only difference in this case was neighborhood opposition. Thus, the district court ruled the developer’s due process rights had been violated.

And there is an argument to be made that, under this scenario, a group of residents could protest subsidized housing or a mosque or construction for any discriminatory reason.

However, the appellate court ruled that "resident opposition, provided it is motivated by legitimate concerns, can provide a rational basis’’ for a decision.

In other words, traffic congestion can be considered.

"The thing that drove me nuts is they were criticizing us for having a sound reason for our decision,’’ said Commissioner Charlie Justice. "They couldn’t say we were being arbitrary and capricious. We took a lot of time, and we had legitimate reasons.

"To me, it was so clear cut. I kept wanting to say, ‘What am I missing here?’?’’

Still, the story is not yet at its conclusion.

The Richman Group could appeal to the state Supreme Court. Considering the amount of money at stake and the appellate court’s acknowledgment that the county may have technically violated state law, that would seem to be a possibility. Attorneys representing Richman Group said Friday that a decision on an appeal had not yet been made.

Meanwhile, commissioners believe their decision has been vindicated after several years of criticism. Even more, their role in the process has been vindicated.

"If we had lost, what would it have said to city councils or county commissions across the state about feeling empowered to make decisions?’’ Justice asked. "If they have to be afraid of being sued for $20 million, it would have sent a chilling effect across the entire state.’’