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Judge removes attorneys for high-rise foes

An effort by the Gulf Landings Association to halt construction of a nine-story seniors' complex was derailed Tuesday when the association's attorneys were removed from the case.

In an early morning hearing, Circuit Judge W. Lowell Bray Jr. agreed with the complex's developer, Joe Borda, that the law firm of Carlton Fields Ward Emmanuel Smith & Cutler PA should be disqualified from representing the association because the firm had represented one of Borda's companies in 1987 on a related matter.

Having lost its attorney, the association canceled a Tuesday afternoon hearing on whether the court should order construction of the high-rise stopped.

"I don't know what happens from here," said association representative Bruce Manning. "We're kind of stuck."

Donald Hemke, the attorney with Carlton Fields who was representing the association, did not return a telephone call from the Times.

Tuesday's ruling could have a substantial impact on the association's attempt to block construction of the high-rise.

Hiring another attorney and bringing that attorney up to speed could take weeks. In the meantime, work on the high-rise would continue. Already, a portion of the building is six stories tall.

The association previously maintained that speed was of the essence, because the closer a building was to completion, the harder it would be for the courts to stop construction.

Manning said he could not comment on the likely implications of Tuesday's rulings. He said he also could not comment on whether the association would seek new counsel.

"I have to talk to the (association) board to see if they're willing to go on," he said.

Earlier this month, the association sued Borda's companies, the apartments' construction company and Pasco County. The association alleged that because the county approved the project without a publicly posted hearing on its height, its members were denied the chance to comment on the building and its impact on their neighborhood.

The county attorney had waived the area's 45-foot height limit for the apartment complex, called the Landings at Sea Forest. She based her decision, in part, on a 1987 state ruling, which kept the Gulf Harbors development from having to submit to a complicated state review process, called a DRI.

Who helped Borda get that state ruling in 1987? Attorneys Jake Varn and David Dee, who were then affiliated with Carlton Fields, but have since left, and several other attorneys who are still at the law firm.

Because the bulk of the 1987 work was performed by attorneys who are no longer affiliated with Carlton Fields, the law firm should not be disqualified from representing the association, Hemke argued.

But Borda's attorney, Jeremy Gluckman, maintained that Carlton Fields has a conflict of interest.

Bray agreed, saying Carlton Fields could not now argue against a development protection that the firm had once helped Borda obtain.

Bray also told the association that it couldn't give a new attorney any data developed for this case by Carlton Fields.

Manning said the association already had paid Carlton Fields a retainer and would probably owe the firm additional fees.

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