CLEARWATER — In 2004, neighbors fought, and lost, an appeal to stop a high-rise development at the corner of Edgewater Drive and Sunset Point Road.
Now they're ready for another fight over the same land after the Clearwater Community Development Board approved a seven-story, 80-unit luxury condominium for the property.
Their appeal, filed last week by the Edgewater Drive Neighborhood Association, means a hearing officer from Tallahassee will speak with the parties involved and review the record, then uphold or overturn the development board's decision.
Members of the neighborhood association packed Clearwater city chambers for the board's June 25 hearing on plans by Edgewater Valor Capital, LLC plan to build the condos.
The building would be the second luxury housing project in Clearwater built by Moises Agami, a developer and Scientologist from Mexico City. He completed the 10-story SkyView downtown in 2018, one block from the Church of Scientology's Flag Building and international spiritual headquarters.
As of 2015, Agami's family had donated at least $10 million to Scientology.
During the nearly 7-hour-long meeting, members spoke about their fear that the new development would go against the character of the area, which has mostly one- or two-story homes. They wore T-shirts and buttons declaring "no tall condos," matching the signs they stuck into their lawns.
None of the 16 residents who spoke against the project brought up the issue of Scientology. But, of the roughly 50 residents who wrote letters to the city opposing Agami's condo for its size and scope, four raised concerns about the project's connection to the controversial Scientology organization.
The board voted 5-2 in favor of the developer.
In its appeal, the association said developers failed to prove they meet all the requirements for Level Two zoning, including showing the building will be in harmony with the bulk of adjacent properties and consistent with community character.
"I think all the smoke and mirrors that was developed by the attorney just blinded them," association member Dean Falk said of the development board.
The claim also says the board failed to admit evidence from those opposed to the development.
Falk said he felt the board didn't take the association's concerns seriously because they didn't have an expert to testify or a lawyer on their behalf. As the appeal hearing draws closer, the group is searching for a lawyer who can do pro-bono work. The association has already spent about $7,700 on the initial hearing and the appeal, all contributed by its members.
"This is big money against a small neighborhood community," Falk said. "We can't be spending thousands of dollars more, we can't suck it out of these people."
Brian Aungst, the attorney representing Edgewater Valor Capital, LLC, wrote in a statement that the developers worked with neighbors for a year designing the project and have heard support from residents on all the bordering roads, including members of the neighborhood association.
"The appeal is one more step in this process and we, and our neighborhood supporters, look forward to its successful resolution," Aungst said.
During the hearing, Aungst mentioned that the area is zoned for tourism, so single-family homes can't be built on the property. In a tourist zoning district, only restaurants, bars, hotels and other similar properties can be built.
Rosemarie Call, the city clerk, said appeals of board actions are rare.
Falk said the association's goal is to overturn the decision and make Edgewater Valor Capital redraw its plans. It's not about the condos, he said, but more about the size dwarfing any other building along the water. He said a smaller building with fewer units would be a better fit.
At the neighborhood association's meeting last Tuesday, residents discussed strategy for the appeal and bemoaned missteps in the earlier hearing.
John Espey, an association member, has been living in Clearwater since 1951 and said he's not sure how the appeal will turn out.
"You never know what the government's going to do," he said. "They can be your friend or they can be your biggest enemy."
Staff Writer Tracy McManus contributed to this report. Contact Romy Ellenbogen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @Romyellenbogen.