SAFETY HARBOR — When the Pinellas County Commission struck down a proposed luxury apartment complex slated for the site of the former Firmenich Citrus Plant, opponents believed they had dealt the project a death blow.
Turns out that was only an intermission.
The administrative law judge, Bram Canter, ruled late Monday that commissioners had erred in their decision not to allow the complex at McMullen-Booth Road and State Road 590, and had based their decision on a policy that had never been etched into code.
The judge's ruling revives a saga that has stretched more than a year, spurring residents to circulate petitions, stage street protests and send hundreds of letters and emails to elected officials.
"We will continue making our presence known," said Barbara Hugg, a neighbor of the proposed development and one of the most vocal protesters. "There is still a core group of us that are going to continue forward until the final nail is banged into the coffin."
Hugg said she and others will persevere, continuing to stage big crowds at upcoming commission hearings in Pinellas County and Safety Harbor, where both legislative bodies will hear the issue again.
Canter's decision is not legally binding, but elected officials are supposed to give great weight to the judge's ruling.
The dates for the future hearings are not yet published.
For commissioners in Safety Harbor, the issue has been among the most difficult — pitting commissioners against each other and, sometimes, residents against commissioners.
Safety Harbor's commission narrowly approved the proposed complex over loud protests in February, eliciting yells and boos from opponents who accused commissioners of ignoring their voices.
Critics said the proposed 246-unit complex would be too tacky, damage the environment, result in too much traffic and cause property values to decline, among other complaints.
But commissioners aren't supposed to consider any of that, said Vice Mayor Nina Bandoni, who plans to repeat her initial "yes" vote when the project comes back to Safety Harbor.
By law, commissioners are only permitted to weigh whether the proposed complex meets the requirements for a requested zoning change from industrial to residential.
Voting otherwise can invite a lawsuit, she said.
Case in point? Monday's ruling against the county.
When county commissioners denied the complex in May, they cited a policy to preserve industrial land and bring high-wage jobs to Pinellas County.
But attorneys for the Richman Group, the West Palm Beach developers behind the project, argued the policy was only a resolution that never made it into the county code.
They also said the property is not appropriate for industrial use because it's in a residential area and doesn't have good street access for trucks.
Canter apparently agreed in his 19-page ruling, although he conceded the final interpretation is for elected officials alone.
That ruling is no problem for Bandoni, who believes Safety Harbor is better off approving the apartments than keeping the property zoned industrial — which would mean the landowners could sell it to anybody and the city would have minimal control over the plans.
"I feel strongly the proposed apartments would be an asset to Safety Harbor," she said. "I would prefer to see housing as opposed to an industrial use."
Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at [email protected] or 727-445-4155.