DADE CITY — Faced with the threat of a lawsuit from the developer, Pasco commissioners agreed to rehear an appeal of a controversial apartment complex that they failed to vote up or down two weeks ago.
"If we let this stand as it is, then I think we're going to lose later on," said Commissioner Jack Mariano, who voted with the majority on Aug. 27 to send the proposed 102-unit Oaks Apartments back to the county's Development Review Committee to be re-examined. "I thought we were making the right decision, but I don't think we made the right call."
Mariano voiced his misgivings after a break in which he met with county staff, who explained that the project met or exceeded all land-use rules and already had the proper zoning. He, along with Commissioners Ted Schrader and Kathryn Starkey, voted to rehear the matter, which erases the earlier decision.
The vote Tuesday came after commissioners received scathing letters from two attorneys for the developer, Clearwater-based Scherer Development. The attorneys urged the board to reconsider the decision to allow the apartments off Amazon Drive near New Port Richey.
"Their actions were so far outside the permitted and permissible realm of their authority that they have exposed themselves personally to liability for violating my clients' rights to due process and equal protection and in doing so have also exposed themselves and the county to liability," attorney Robert K. Lincoln wrote to Schrader. He went on to accuse Commissioners Pat Mulieri, Henry Wilson Jr. and Mariano of participating in an "illegal public mugging."
Attorney Barbara Wilhite wrote criticizing Mulieri for urging the developer to "make everybody happy" and change the plans to single-family owned villas. She said the apartments met all zoning and land-use requirements and repeated the county attorney's remarks that "staff was compelled to issue the site plan" and that commissioners had no choice legally but to uphold the DRC.
"Commissioners Mariano, Mulieri and Wilson acted totally outside the evidence, totally outside the law, even after having been repeatedly advised that there was no legal basis for taking any action other than approving DRC's decision," the letter said.
The new hearing, which will have to be advertised, will likely happen next month.
The decision came as a surprise to We Are 5533 Strong Inc., a group formed to address the concerns of nearby Heritage Lakes neighborhood.
"I was not aware of this," attorney Ralf Brookes said. "My clients were not aware. We did not receive any notice or the opportunity to be heard on the motion to reconsider."
The fight has been going on since September 2012, when county staffers first approved the plans. The first phase of the complex would include six two-story units, a 3,000-square-foot clubhouse, swimming and splash pools, a playground, picnic pavilions, tennis and basketball courts, a mulched car wash area, a 2-acre park with an open play area, parking lots and seven garages.
The site has been woods for years but was zoned multifamily in 1985. In 2005 it was approved for 102 condominiums, which residents did not oppose. But the housing bust stalled the project and the land was sold to Scherer, which revived the plans.
The residents have argued that the multi-story apartments would lower property values, increase traffic and contribute to flooding. County staff have said flooding won't be an issue.
Brookes said the county was supposed to have approved compatibility standards in 2008 that would have prevented the apartments, but that didn't get done.
He said a case can still be made that the proposed apartments aren't compatible with the surrounding neighborhood and that he welcomes the chance to be heard again.