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Civic fight takes unusual twist

Regency Park and Embassy Hills residents were elated last month when a judge agreed that an insurance office does not belong in their neighborhood, but now their three-year fight has taken another twist. Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Judge Brandt C. Downey III has ruled that the County Commission improperly rezoned the southeast corner of Regency Park and Embassy boulevards. Commissioners should not have allowed an insurance office to be moved into a former model home on the property, the judge said.

Under Downey's ruling, which the county is challenging, the corner would remain zoned for single-family homes.

Now two businessmen with ties to the property want to participate in the appeal filed by the 950-member Embassy Hills Civic Association, and residents do not welcome the requests.

In the past, the residents have argued that putting a business at the corner would generate more traffic and disrupt the residential character of the neighborhood.

In recent weeks, attorneys for Wayne O'Brien and Donald Kaltenbach have filed motions asking that both men be recognized as parties to the civic association's appeal.

O'Brien, who originally filed for the rezoning so he could move his State Farm insurance agency to the corner, sold the building to Kaltenbach in July, according to court records.

Since then, Kaltenbach has leased the building back to O'Brien, who continues to run his insurance business out of the former model home.

In court pleadings, lawyers say neither O'Brien nor Kaltenbach knew that the civic association was challenging the County Commission's decision when the property was sold.

Clearwater lawyer Alan S. Zimmet, who represents O'Brien, contends that his client spent $12,700 to meet county building codes and convert the home into an office.

If Downey's ruling overturning the rezoning stands, Zimmet added, O'Brien may have to move his business, lose his investment and still be held to the terms of the lease.

Kaltenbach's attorney, Gerald A. Figurski of New Port Richey, contends that if Downey's decision is upheld, then Kaltenbach's interests "may be devastated."

Neither O'Brien, Kaltenbach nor their attorneys could be reached for comment Friday.

Residents, however, see the requests to become parties in their appeal as a delaying tactic designed to make them spend all their money on legal fees and eventually give up.

"The whole thing smells of collusion," said Chester Zionce, who lives next door to the parking lot of O'Brien's insurance office. "What they're trying to do is wear us down."

Moreover, residents say the judge should not consider what has happened since the County Commission's vote in January. Instead, they say, the case should focus on whether the commission followed the law.

"This case is based on the facts as they stood back in January," Zionce said. "Anything that has happened since does not have any effect."

A hearing to consider the motions filed on behalf of O'Brien and Kaltenbach has been scheduled for next month.

In his ruling, Judge Downey concluded that commissioners improperly created "spot zoning" when they approved O'Brien's request. Spot zoning occurs when officials allow one kind of development, such as a business, in an area where neighboring properties contain a different and incompatible type of development, such as homes.

The county has asked Downey to reconsider his ruling on the grounds that the commission's decision was based on substantial, competent evidence. Further, Pasco officials say the decision itself was not "fairly debatable."

To residents, the county's motion to reconsider is as maddening as the actions of O'Brien and Kaltenbach, and homeowners vow to vote out incumbent commissioners.

"We hired them by vote and we will fire them by vote," resident George Tengler said.

According to representatives of Wespac, a coalition of West Pasco civic groups, the concern over the rezoning is not confined to Regency Park and Embassy Hills.

"If this happens in one (neighborhood), it could happen in any of them," Wespac president Frank Snyder said. "That's why we're monitoring this thing carefully."