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Lots of familiar faces in this deal

Pinellas County has almost 1-million people, but in some ways it's still a small town. Nobody knows that better than the folks who live just west of the southern end of the Bayside Bridge.

The residents of the single-family neighborhoods there have been fighting a proposed 23-acre development of 209 apartments and heights of up to five stories.

They organized. They signed petitions. Last Tuesday night, more than 100 of them attended a meeting of the Pinellas County Commission.

But they lost, at least for now. There are more rounds to go.

There are a couple of interesting angles that separate this from your average case.

The lawyer for the developers is from the firm of Johnson, Pope, Bokor, Ruppel & Burns. If you know a bit about Pinellas affairs, you know it as "Ed Armstrong's firm." Armstrong, a well-known land-use lawyer, is the president.

Nothing unusual about that. Lots of people hire Ed Armstrong's firm. If I wanted a land-use ruling from the county, I'd hire him too.

Here is an extra angle: The development, called Bayside Reserves, might be financed by a public agency called the Pinellas Housing Finance Authority.

And the lawyer for the Housing Finance Authority is from the firm of …

Johnson, Pope, Bokor, Ruppel & Burns.

To be sure, Armstrong told me Monday, his firm made sure everything was proper. It got letters of approval from both the developers and the Housing Finance Authority.

And since the County Commission is a separate outfit, which has nothing to do with the financing, it was not a matter of the law firm "representing both sides of the case."

The firm will not represent the developer in front of the housing outfit, either.

Still, this does not make the residents happy. "Maybe Armstrong won't have any more conflicts at that time," an opponent named David Waddell told the County Commission, "and I can retain him."

Here's another angle.

The stated reason that the county approved Bayside Reserves, despite objections about traffic, neighborhood character and such, was that it includes "work force housing."

Again, this is a Good Idea. The county has been working to expand affordable housing for working folks. The county even lets developers have extra density if they include it.

But here, the county's own desire for work force housing was the decisive thumb on the scale. The decisionmaking body was an advocate for the thing being decided.

Not coincidentally, another representative for the developer out in the audience was Jake Stowers, a retired assistant county administrator.

So all in all, this is what the opponents see: A politically active, well-connected law firm represents both the developer and the government financing agency. The county itself is pushing workplace housing, and a former assistant county administrator is working on the deal too.

The Bayside Reserves case should set off warning bells, both as to the inside nature of Pinellas decisionmaking and as to whether "affordable housing" becomes another justification for letting developers build whatever they want, where they want.

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Lots of familiar faces in this deal 07/28/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 30, 2008 2:39pm]

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