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Couple sues Dunedin over zoning change

The former owners of the land that now houses Schiller International University have sued the city in federal court, saying Dunedin officials improperly passed an ordinance forbidding development of a retirement community. John and Darlene Van Harlingen are seeking more than $50,000 in damages.

The Van Harlingens bought the 6.7-acre Edgewater Drive property from Trinity College in April 1988, planning to turn it into a rental retirement community. The city didn't approve a change in the property's zoning.

The college sued the couple after they tried to bail out. Trinity later settled its $1.4-million mortgage foreclosure lawsuit with the Van Harlingens for $1.25-million.

The Van Harlingens, who are filmmakers from California, say the city told them while they were buying the property that they would be allowed to build a retirement center. After the couple bought the land, the suit says, the city changed the zoning to discourage them from building an adult congregate living facility (ACLF).

"The city passed ordinances as best I can tell in a fashion contrary to the statute, which resulted in a severe economic loss to these people," said Donald McLawhorn, the Van Harlingens' attorney.

Dunedin City Attorney John Hubbard said the city never assured the couple they could build an ACLF. The city changed its zoning code to clear up confusion regarding where ACLFs should go, he said, but commissioners approved that change about the same time the Van Harlingens bought the property.

"This ordinance was in the process of being adopted right when they were buying the property," Hubbard said. "They can't say we changed the rules on them when they weren't looking."

The suit also says the city didn't properly advertise the zoning change.

The Van Harlingens said the city wanted to buy the property and, thus, was too extreme in applying land development regulations to the use of it.

"Such over-zealous enforcement of Dunedin's regulations was, in part, retribution for (the Van Harlingens') refusal to sell their property to (Dunedin) and resulted in a taking of all use of (the Van Harlingens') property," the lawsuit says. "Plaintiffs were required to pay ongoing expenses related to their property and were forced to sell their property under duress."

Commissioners at one time appointed a task force to recommend whether the city should buy the college. The task force decided there were too many problems, Hubbard said Wednesday.

The property eventually was sold to Schiller International University, which plans to open in January.