NEW PORT RICHEY — A company that conducts clinical drug trials has opened its facility on Congress Street, in defiance of city officials who told them months ago that a rezoning would be required.
A code enforcement officer issued a written warning May 4 to the Advanced Research Institute, giving the company 14 days to correct the issue or face a $500 citation. But the office at 6716 Congress St. remained open for business on Tuesday, with a patient sign-up sheet at a reception window, a waiting room with magazines on a coffee table, and a man behind the counter wearing a stethoscope around his neck.
ARI CEO Susan Randall acknowledged the company is conducting clinical trials on site. She said they are working through a zoning bind, but she pledged to stay open even in the face of legal action from the city.
"We are working through the process and doing what we need to do. I have patients who need to be taken care of and I am not going to abandon them," she said.
Building officials at City Hall have yet to receive an application to rezone the property, City Manager John Schneiger said. The site, which previously housed the Harbinger House for troubled boys, is zoned for residential use. City attorneys said ARI is a clinical laboratory that needs office zoning, even though the drug trials involve some overnight stays by patients.
"I'm disappointed because the last conversation I had with Susan Randall was that they were going to go through the proper application process," Schneiger said Tuesday.
Mayor Bob Consalvo expressed shock that the business has opened without applying for the right zoning.
"It's too bad because I pledged that I would support them if they did things the right way. They're obviously in the wrong," Consalvo said. "It's the kind of business we want here, so it's a shame to get off on the wrong foot like this."
Complicating matters, ARI employs City Council member Judy DeBella Thomas as its marketing and enrollment liaison. She advocated for a resolution to the zoning dispute back in March, after code enforcement red-tagged the Congress Street site for renovations done without a building permit. She then raised eyebrows at City Hall with a March 12 email announcing trials for a diabetes medication at the Congress Street site, even though the then-vacant building was still mired in zoning and permitting issues.
"That's where the clinical trial will eventually be, so that's why it was on there," DeBella Thomas told the Times in March.
She could not be reached Tuesday for comment on the latest developments. Randall declined to comment on whether DeBella Thomas knew ARI had opened at the Congress Street site.
The dustup in March, which resulted in a $513 fine for the contractor, set off a flurry of emails at City Hall about the broader zoning dispute. In an email to city officials, ARI attorney Barbara Wilhite wrote that the "cleanest and most simple way to expedite a resolution" would be for the city to amend its comprehensive plan and zoning code to allow a medical research facility in the existing zoning. City officials refused, saying ARI needed to apply for any necessary zoning and land-use changes like any other business.
Wilhite declined Tuesday to comment.
City code enforcement still hopes to bring ARI into compliance, as the business must "play by the rules," New Port Richey Police Chief James Steffens said Tuesday.
"We want this business to flourish, but you have to do what's in the regulations, and if you fail to, unfortunately it's eventually going to end up in front of a judge," he said.
Randall said her company is stuck in an impossible position. Randall said that before she signed the lease, the landlord assured her ARI's facility would fit with the residential zoning.
So Randall lined up clinical trials for the site with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and began the process. But the city's attorney ruled her business — which provides both in-patient and out-patient services — did not comply with the residential zoning.
Randall said her landlord and former operator of the Harbinger House, Clearwater Juvenile Services Program Inc., has refused to sign off on a rezoning application, and instead has offered to sell the property to ARI for more than $1 million. But without a rezoning, Randall said, she can't get financing to buy the site.
A representative with Juvenile Services declined to comment.
Still, Randall said she is shocked at the negativity coming from the city while she is trying to resolve the zoning problem while caring for patients and bringing money and recognition to the city.
"Nothing has been made easy for us. I don't see a single person in this city coming forth to help us. They say they want our business here, that it's good for the community, then give us no help whatsoever," she said.