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Builder says height limit devalues property

The owner of a construction company is seeking compensation from the city of Crystal River because he claims its ordinance governing the height of buildings has decreased the value of property he owns along Kings Bay Drive.

A Tallahassee law firm representing Rick Suggs, owner of Premier Construction Group Inc., has notified the city that it is making a claim for $568,000 under the Bert Harris Act, a state law that allows private property owners to sue cities and counties for damages if their decisions "inordinately burden" or restrict the owner's rights.

That figure, determined by an appraisal, represents the depreciated value of Suggs' four lots on Kings Bay Drive since the city voted to limit the height on new residential construction to a maximum of 35 feet, said Suggs' attorney, Gary K. Hunter Jr.

City Attorney David LaCroix said Tuesday he would not comment on the matter until the next Crystal River City Council meeting.

The claim, a prelude to a lawsuit if the city doesn't settle, shouldn't come as much of a surprise: After the City Council passed a height ordinance in October 2002 _ capping residential property at 35 feet and most commercial property at 50 feet _ Suggs and other property owners threatened to pursue legal options.

In an Oct. 27 letter to city officials, Suggs' lawyer made good on those promises.

Hunter said his client bought an approximately 2.5-acre peninsula overlooking Kings Bay in 1997 with plans to build four single-family homes on the lots. The price tag, the lawyer wrote, was the highest ever paid for vacant building lots in Crystal River.

Premier Construction Group paid $927,500 for the four lots sitting on an area known as Shaatz Island, according to the Property Appraiser's Office.

Suggs wanted to build multiple-story luxury homes featuring high ceilings and "spectacular panoramic views of the surrounding springs, bay, canals and expanse of the Gulf of Mexico," the letter stated. An architectural firm found the homes would need to be 55 to 60 feet tall to "maximize the views."

Former city public works and building officials Russ Kreager and Harold Varvel had assured Suggs his only impediments would be setbacks from the water, the lawyer said.

"Then the height ordinance went into place . . . and those plans were no longer permissible," Hunter said Tuesday during a phone interview. "We do think the value has been significantly impacted on what was extremely valuable property and is now less so because of the ordinance."

Suggs could not be reached at home or work for comment Tuesday.

He is not the only landowner fighting the city's ordinance. Dr. Paresh Desai, owner of the Port Hotel and Marina, is seeking to have his waterfront property rezoned a "planned unit development," a designation that carries no height limits under the city's land development code.

That way, he could build two five-story hotels that might reach as high as 68 feet. However, the rezoning proposal already has been turned down by the city's Parks, Planning and Zoning Commission and the City Council after its first reading.

Suggs' case, his lawyer said, is different.

"He doesn't want to go out there and build high-rises," Hunter said. "They would be large, single-family homes."

Under state law, the city has six months to respond to the claim. If the two parties don't reach an amicable resolution, Hunter said, "then we will file a legal action in Circuit Court."

_ Colleen Jenkins can be reached at 860-7303 or cjenkinssptimes.com.

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