NEW PORT RICHEY — The zoning battle over a clinical drug trial company may be heading to court.
A city code enforcement officer issued a $513 citation on Thursday morning to Advanced Research Institute for operating its facility without the proper zoning. Company owner Susan Randall received a July 26 county court date.
"We believe that there is probable cause to issue the citation and we are going to prosecute the case," said Assistant City Attorney Jim Lang.
The zoning controversy has been brewing for months. ARI signed a lease in January for the property at 6716 Congress St., which previously housed the Harbinger House, a residential facility for boys. ARI officials planned to conduct inpatient and outpatient drug trials. The building had private rooms that could accommodate the patients who needed overnight stays.
But the site was zoned for residential use. The city's attorneys said ARI was a clinical laboratory that needed office zoning.
ARI opened anyway.
Complicating matters, ARI employs City Council member Judy DeBella Thomas as its marketing and enrollment liaison. At one point she sent emails to city officials urging them to find a solution, but last week she declined to comment on the controversy: "I just work for them. I have no control over any day-to-day operations," she said.
On May 4 the city issued a written warning to the company. ARI representatives met with city officials on Tuesday, hoping to negotiate a resolution. ARI attorney Barbara Wilhite renewed her suggestion that the city create a new zoning category to cover the business at its current location.
"We have worked hard with your staff to try to fit this property/existing building and ARI's business into your existing plan and code to no avail," Wilhite wrote Wednesday in a follow-up email to City Manager John Schneiger.
Wilhite also proposed a $2,000 fee that ARI could pay to initiate the process, "in order to address the staff and attorney time that will be expended, as well as the noticing costs that will be incurred." Instead, code enforcement delivered the citation on Thursday.
The city will outline the probable cause for the citation at the July 26 arraignment, Lang said. If ARI pleads guilty, the city could begin fining the company $513 each day it remains open. If the firm pleads not guilty, another hearing would be scheduled for the judge to hear both sides and make a ruling on the case.
If the city prevails, it would seek a judge's order requiring ARI to come into compliance within 30 to 60 days, Lang said. If that order goes ignored, he said, the city could ask the judge to shut the business down.
On Thursday, Wilhite said she had not reviewed the citation so she could not comment on what stance the company will take.
"My clients are continuing to work with the city to resolve this issue," she said.