NEW PORT RICHEY — Advanced Research Institute, a clinical drug trial company that opened this spring without the proper zoning, doesn't fit neatly into any of the city's land use categories, attorney Barbara Wilhite has argued. She has urged city officials to create a new category for her client.
On Tuesday evening, City Council members agreed on that approach.
Fearful the city's pending citation against ARI could force the firm to close its doors — and jeopardize New Port Richey's reputation in the business community — council members directed staff to work with ARI to craft land use regulations that accommodate the medical research facility. The proposal would come back to the council for a vote.
Council member Bill Phillips envisioned creating a process that other businesses could also use if they wanted to move to the city but couldn't find the right zoning category to cover what they do.
"If we don't, we will always be identified as a place that is hard to do business with. And that doesn't sit well with me," said Phillips.
The dispute goes back five months, when ARI signed a lease to use the old Harbinger House site at 6716 Congress St. for clinical drug trials. The building has private rooms that could accommodate patients who need overnight stays.
ARI officials initially argued their use fell within the existing residential zoning. City attorneys said the facility needed to be rezoned for medical office use.
But ARI faced two roadblocks: the property owner, Juvenile Services Program, Inc., has refused to sign off on a rezoning request; and even if it would, a medical office zoning would still not cover ARI's needs, Wilhite said.
City Manager John Schneiger maintained ARI needed to apply for a rezoning to begin the process of finding a solution, while Wilhite argued for amending the comprehensive plan and land development code to accommodate the business. In the meantime, code enforcement issued a $513 citation last month to ARI for operating without the right zoning.
The impasse led Schneiger to bring the matter to council.
With a July 26 court date looming on the zoning citation, Wilhite told the council that if they did not approve moving forward with the requested changes, ARI would eventually be forced to close its doors and leave the city.
"That's where this is heading," she said.
Two council members recused themselves from the decision. Council member Judy DeBella Thomas is ARI's marketing and enrollment liaison, and Deputy Mayor Rob Marlowe's company provides email services for ARI.
The remaining council members agreed the city attorney should begin the process of working with ARI on the comprehensive plan and land use changes. But first, council member Bob Langford admonished ARI owner Susan Randall for opening her business without the legal zoning.
"Why would you do something that was wrong? Why would you do that?" he asked.
Wilhite said Randall signed the lease on the property believing that her business fit into the residential zoning already in place, and opened because she had contracts in place to begin drug trials. Had Randall not begun the trials, Wilhite said, her reputation and business would be lost.
Randall told the council she searched for a location for two years before choosing the old Harbinger House.
"Due diligence was done," she said.
Though she recused herself from the decision, DeBella Thomas weighed in at one point in the discussion, saying the city needed to do a better job of informing prospective businesses of its zoning restrictions up front.
"It shouldn't be that people need to stumble on this information," she said.
It's unclear how much it will cost to make the land use accommodations for ARI.
ARI officials have offered $2,000 to get the ball rolling, while one city report said it could cost more than $10,000 for a needed consultant, attorney fees, and city worker's time to create the process. And it's going to be time-consuming, according to City Attorney Mike Davis.
"It can be done. But it's not like it's going to happen today," he said.
In the meantime, the fate of the $513 citation remains up in the air.
Wilhite said the city attorney could file an abatement with the court to put it on hold while discussions ramp up. Schneiger said after the meeting that is something that would be looked at, but first he wants to see what ARI brings to the table.
"It's a little early to begin talking about that," he said of putting a stop on the citation.