TARPON SPRINGS — The city's efforts to buy a motel near Spring Bayou with a history of criminal activity has entered a new phase.
With the city and the owner of the Sunbay Motel still far apart on price, City Manager Mark LeCouris has received unanimous City Commission approval to seek a solution to the impasse through mediation.
"We've pretty much gotten to the end of negotiations," LeCouris told city commissioners. "Mediation is the last step."
Commissioners previously gave LeCouris permission to try to negotiate a deal for the Sunbay Motel, have the motel and a vacant adjacent parcel owned by architect Edward Hoffman appraised and hire a lawyer who specializes in the public purchase of private property.
Although LeCouris has expressed confidence the city would win if it tried to acquire the motel at 57 W Tarpon Ave. through eminent domain court proceedings, some commissioners have been less confident. Commissioners have been hoping to strike a deal to buy the motel without resorting to legal action.
As of April 27, Clearwater appraisal firm Clarizo & Associates was valuing the Sunbay property at $690,000. The Hoffman property was appraised at $455,000 as of May 19.
Mayor Chris Alahouzos said there is a "big difference" in what the Clarizo appraisal says the motel is worth and what owner Peter Fanoudis is asking.
"We have very different views on what it's worth," Commissioner David Banther said.
LeCouris told commissioners he hopes to have a mediated deal for them to consider as the CRA board in October.
"I'm hoping that regardless of what happens, we can stay out of court," Banther said.
Commissioner Rea Sieber has voiced reservations about the CRA buying the Sunbay Motel from the beginning.
"I've been concerned about the money we're spending," Sieber said, citing the $12,500 in CRA money already spent on attorney's fees.
The CRA could have used that money to help downtown businesses instead, she said.
Sieber said she would prefer to see a private developer buy the motel property because the city doesn't have the money.
Former Commissioner Peter Dalacos called the city's efforts to buy the Sunbay property "ridiculous." When acting as the CRA board, Dalacos noted, the City Commission does not have to abide by the requirement in the city charter that voters approve city purchases of more than $200,000 in a referendum.
Residents "won't have the opportunity to have a say," Dalacos said.
"Are we going to turn around every time someone gets shot and hurt, and buy up that piece of property?" Dalacos asked, referring to a 2016 incident in which, according to authorities, one Sunbay resident fatally shot another.
The shooting death and a history of drug arrests and related crimes at the motel spurred the city's efforts to buy the Sunbay. The city has considered a plan to raze the motel and turn the property and the adjacent Hoffman land into a passive city park overlooking Spring Bayou.
Jim Kolianos, another former city commissioner, said efforts by police and code officials have improved the situation but the city still needs to buy the property because it can't keep it under constant surveillance.
Kolianos told commissioners they had been elected "to do the right thing."