A recurring theme of the 2013 New Port Richey municipal election is an assertion that the city must reign in supposedly onerous regulations hindering local development.
Onerous, however, isn't synonymous with unreasonable. And, the case of Wayne and Susan Allen illustrates why local government land-use and development rules exist — to protect the property rights of all parties, not just the privileges of the person filing the application. In the Allens' case, the city's rush to green light residential construction during the 2005 real estate boom will now cost the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars because of lax protocols.
The city's expensive and embarrassing mistake was its customary practice of skipping a basic requirement on land-use cases — notifying neighboring property owners of a proposed change in lot sizes. Instead, a variance application from the Allens to split a single riverfront parcel into two lots, each to contain a three-story, $1 million home, sailed through city review and council approval.
The Allens didn't close on the property until city department heads, sitting as the Development Review Committee, authorized the change that allowed construction on lots smaller than the city's minimum. Likewise, the Allens didn't apply for a city permit to demolish the existing home until council gave its approval, following a public hearing in which nobody spoke.
The Allens paid $13,000 to knock down the existing house, but their plans were interrupted when neighbor Dan Aldridge sued New Port Richey, contending Mandy Lane residents hadn't objected because the city hadn't told adjacent property owners of the proposed change.
The city rescinded the approval, required the Allens to reapply for permission to divide the parcel and notified the neighbors of the pending variance request. Council then rejected the second application after Aldridge successfully argued the request failed to meet New Port Richey's own codes.
This time the Allens objected and sued the city for their losses, including the expense of demolishing the house and their inability to use the two lots as originally granted. Earlier this month, council agreed to a $362,5000 settlement to be paid in five installments through 2017. It leaves a financially constrained city government beginning its next two fiscal years with $100,000 holes to fill.
The city manager, city attorney, mayor and three of the four council members from 2005 are no longer in office. Only Bob Langford has the unfortunate honor of being on the council to grant the original variance request and to settle the Allens' lawsuit because of the city's sloppiness. But, let's be clear. It is not a council member's role to notify neighbors. And, following a staff recommendation to grant a variance is a matter of routine when nobody from the public objects.
These legal entanglements and pricey settlement could have been avoided if the city followed better public notice practices on all variance applications. Despite the campaign claims of 2013, New Port Richey doesn't need to review its so-called onerous regulations. It needs to ensure proper rules are in place to protect all of the public's interests.