NEW PORT RICHEY — Advanced Research Institute, a clinical drug trial company that has operated for nearly a year without the proper zoning, was close to a solution that would put it in the clear.
But on Tuesday night, the measure came up one vote short.
"I think it's basically a show of favoritism, so I'm against it," said City Council member Bob Langford, who cast the deciding vote.
The proposed ordinance did not deal with ARI specifically, but rather would have allowed any business to seek city approval for "low traffic" office uses within a high-density residential area. Still, the measure was drafted in the wake of ARI's zoning conundrum. And Langford, who has previously criticized ARI for "knowingly breaking the law" by operating without the right land use, said he opposed passing a citywide ordinance to resolve one business' problem.
All of which leaves ARI in the same bind as before.
Code enforcement cited ARI owner Susan Randall last May for operating her clinical drug trial business at 6716 Congress St. without meeting the proper zoning requirements. The property — which used to hold the Harbinger House for troubled youths — is zoned for residential, while the city found Randall needs a medical office designation.
The city has no zoning designation on the books that allows the inpatient and outpatient clinical trials going on at ARI. The city warned Randall that was the case, but she opened anyway.
Complicating matters: City Council member Judy DeBella Thomas is ARI's marketing and enrollment liaison. Though she has voiced her support for the city and ARI to resolve the matter, she has had to recuse herself from any votes.
Deputy Mayor Rob Marlowe also had to recuse himself because his computer company provides email services to the business.
So only three council members could vote Tuesday evening on the proposed ordinance to allow office uses, with the city's permission, in high-density residential areas. Mayor Bob Consalvo and council member Bill Phillips both voted to approve the measure.
But the 2-1 vote fell short: The ordinance needed three votes to pass.
ARI's representatives were not at the hearing and did not return calls Wednesday for comment.
Phillips has been in favor of easing restrictions on businesses looking to come into New Port Richey, which has struggled with development in recent years. Prior to the vote he pointed out the ordinance mandates that each applicant seeking the special exemption must come before council for approval.
City Development director Lisa Fierce also said applicants would also have to meet several criteria that must be approved by the Development Review Committee and City Council. Those include how the business will affect traffic, hours of operation and consistency with surrounding residential areas.
After the meeting, Phillips said he was disappointed with the vote and predicted the issue may be raised again with a new City Council after April elections. Marlowe and Langford have both announced they won't seek another term.
"I really thought we were going to have four people vote, but that didn't happen," Phillips said. "So when I saw that I tried to make it clear that every applicant that is seeking this exemption will have to make their case to council."
Marlowe expressed his frustration with a Florida Commission on Ethics ruling that he should recuse himself, telling the Times that he would not have been voting on ARI specifically, but a measure that addresses the whole city. He said he would have voted for the ordinance, though he still scolded ARI for operating in violation of city zoning.
"They never should have opened until they had the proper zoning," he said.
DeBella Thomas stood up for her employer even though she didn't vote.
"I'm disappointed not only for ARI, but for the whole spectrum of opportunities this ordinance would have brought the city in bringing businesses into our community," she told the Times.