ST. PETE BEACH — Coconut Inn owner Joe Caruso, rejected multiple times by the city for Traditional Hotel District zoning for his Pass-a-Grille hotel, is now taking his fight to court.
"I truly feel I was not treated fairly," Caruso said Thursday. "It is a matter of principle."
Caruso calls the commission a "kangaroo court" that has a "lynch mob mentality."
He is basing his lawsuit primarily on constitutional issues, citing the commission's alleged "irrational and arbitrary conduct" that his attorney Jackson Bowman says violates both the Florida and U.S. constitutions.
Caruso is asking the Sixth Judicial Circuit Court to invalidate the City Commission's action turning down his request for rezoning and land use change and to authorize a jury trial that could award damages of more than $15,000.
Caruso bought the former Leroy Hotel at 113 11th Ave. in 2008 as the city was creating the then-new zoning district with the goal of preserving small hotels on historic Pass-a-Grille at the southern tip of the city.
Traditional Hotel District rezoning lets property owners rebuild regardless of whether there is a catastrophic loss and retain use as a hotel. Without the rezoning, a hotel could revert to single-family use.
In the final version of the new district, the Coconut Inn was eligible for rezoning.
In 2009, several other hotel properties were given Traditional Hotel District zoning. Caruso also applied for the designation for his renovated Coconut Inn.
Unlike the other hotels, the Coconut Inn is on an interior street surrounded by mostly single-family residences.
Many of those homeowners are against the rezoning, and the commission twice rejected Caruso's rezoning application, once in January 2010 and most recently in August.
At the time, Commissioner Bev Garnett, who represents Pass-a-Grille, summed up the commission's action this way:
"This has been a terrible, terrible event to happen in our quiet little community. This has been 2 1/2 years of neighbor against neighbor."
Now the city must defend its decision in court.