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Oldsmar council vows to fight affordable apartments project

The Oldsmar City Council had a choice Tuesday night: accept a compromise in its dispute about the proposed Westminster apartments or, as one council member said, "go to war" with the developer.

Council members chose the latter. "I'm afraid you have just seen the beginning of the end for the city of Oldsmar," Tim Johnson, an attorney for the Wilson Co., said, predicting a lawsuit will follow.

The Wilson Co. needs to close on the project this month or risk losing $15.6-million in state bond financing for affordable housing. The company has hired Relman & Associates, a Washington, D.C., law firm that has already warned city officials that they may be violating federal and state fair-housing laws.

Before the vote, City Attorney Tom Trask warned council members that the city also could face an investigation from the U.S. Department of Justice and other federal agencies into whether its actions discriminated against those seeking affordable housing, as well as face fines, civil actions and punitive damages.

The actual damages that the city could face would be about $13-million, Johnson said. That estimate doesn't include punitive damages.

"I believe that the damages that could be recovered in this action could bankrupt the city," Johnson said Wednesday.

Council members twice voted against a Pinellas County Commission resolution, which essentially would have settled a question of whether the proposed complex violates Pinellas rules on land development.

The crowd of about 65 people loudly applauded the council's decisions, which are seen as a victory for the project's opponents. But Mayor Jerry Beverland warned that the city could have a tough road ahead.

"Before you leave the building, you need to understand that there are consequences that could come out of this now," he said. "So, understand that. Because somewhere down the line, you may not want to clap for a decision like this."

Wilson Co. has proposed building a 270-unit complex for low- and moderate-income renters. Neighbors and some council members have opposed the project, arguing it is too big for the 27-acre lot on Forest Lakes Boulevard.

The city approved the 270 units, but later the executive director of the Pinellas Planning Council told Oldsmar officials the city miscalculated the density and said the project should have no more than about 200 units.

To avoid the question of whether the project violated Pinellas land development rules, county commissioners last month approved a resolution that would have allowed the Wilson Co. to receive a "housing density bonus." That means the company could build more units on the property than allowed by county rules because the company proposes to build affordable housing.

"The issue for me is density only," council member Marcelo Caruso said.

He said he was "disgusted" that some would claim the council was discriminating against minorities, pointing out that he is Brazilian.

"I have nothing against Latins, blacks, whites, Japanese _ wherever they come from," council member Marcelo Caruso said. "This is just absurd. I can't believe the way that we are pushed into voting for something."

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