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Pinellas commission rejects zoning change for Safety Harbor apartments

CLEARWATER — Bucking a recommendation from the county attorney and an administrative judge, the Pinellas County Commission unanimously voted on Tuesday to reject a high-end apartment complex in Safety Harbor.

Whether developers would be able to build the 246-unit, three-story luxury complex on State Road 590 has been more than a yearlong saga. After months of protests by Safety Harbor residents, who argued the project was tacky and would increase traffic, the City Commission approved the project in February.

But when the proposal came before the County Commission, the board voted down a necessary zoning change, citing its policy of preserving industrial land to encourage companies to move here.

The project appeared dead.

But the Richman Group, the West Palm Beach developers behind the project, continued their quest. The company filed an appeal for an administrative hearing, arguing that the county's policy was informal and not part of its official code. A judge ruled in its favor in November.

Though the judge's ruling is not legally binding, Pinellas County Attorney Jim Bennett told the board on Tuesday that he agreed with the underlying facts. He explained that in 2006, when the Pinellas Planning Council created a policy to preserve industrial land, the commissioners — on their staff's advice — never voted to make it apply countywide. At the time, the county staff wanted to leave it up to cities to decide whether to rezone their industrial land.

The commissioners rejected the proposal on authority they thought they had, but legally did not, Bennett said.

That reasoning did not sit well with the commissioners. The four who were on the commission in 2006 said they were shocked to find that because of a technicality, a policy they had long-assumed was firmly in place, in fact only applied in the unincorporated area.

Acknowledging they were likely inviting a lawsuit from the Richman Group, the board voted again Tuesday to reject rezoning the land from industrial to residential. It also held the first of two hearings on a proposal to make the zoning preservation policy part of the countywide code.

"There's nobody other than the applicant who's in support of this thing, so I'm not changing my vote," said Commissioner John Morroni.

Following the board's vote, Ed Armstrong, the attorney for the developer, said a decision about whether to file a lawsuit would probably be reached in the next month.

"We'll talk to our client and decide what the next move is," he said.

Safety Harbor residents Les and Cheryll Buchanan, said they were delighted by the commission's vote. The couple lives near the former Firmenich Citrus Plant, the 35-acre proposed site of the apartment complex.

"We want jobs where we live," said Les Buchanan, 56, who works at a water treatment plant in Odessa.

The commission "made a courageous vote," he said, "because they know there are going to be repercussions."

The immediate effects of the board's vote may be felt first in Safety Harbor, where the proposed apartment complex has become a divisive issue in the city's three-way race for mayor.

Joe Ayoub, the city's current mayor, voted in favor of the project last year, arguing that apartments would fit in better with the surrounding neighborhoods. But his two challengers, former Safety Harbor Mayor Andy Steingold and City Commissioner Nancy Besore, oppose the development.

The election is March 11.

Pinellas commission rejects zoning change for Safety Harbor apartments 01/14/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 14, 2014 5:32pm]

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