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Clinical drug trial company in zoning snare may get relief

Published Nov. 10, 2012

NEW PORT RICHEY — Finding a land-use niche for a clinical drug trial company in trouble with the law is taking longer than expected.

So to the dismay of one City Council member, the board agreed Wednesday to let the city's attorney try to postpone a court case stemming from the citation against Advanced Research Institute owner Susan Randall for operating without the proper zoning.

In May, New Port Richey Code Enforcement cited Randall for operating her clinical drug trial business at 6716 Congress St. without meeting the proper zoning requirements. The property — which used to hold the Harbinger House for troubled youths — is zoned for residential, while the city found Randall needs a medical office designation.

The problem is the city has no zoning designation on the books that allows the in-patient and out-patient clinical trials going on at ARI. The city warned Randall that was the case, but she opened anyway.

In the weeks following the citation, City Council members directed New Port Richey's legal staff to work with ARI to come up with a land-use change and comprehensive plan amendment for the site. But that has dragged on. Assistant City Attorney Jim Lang said Wednesday that in order to complete the project, a court hearing scheduled Dec. 19 would need to be put off until February.

One of the holdups has been completing a study on the impact ARI is having on area traffic, Lang said.

City Council member Bob Langford opposed the delay, saying a business that is "knowingly breaking the law" should not be granted more time.

"I don't know why we are letting this go on," he said.

City Council member Bill Phillips has defended ARI in the past, saying it's the type of business New Port Richey wants to attract. On Wednesday, he said taking more time will not only keep ARI in the city, but the land-use designations established during the process could make it easier for other businesses to open in New Port Richey.

He also warned of the property reverting back to a use such as the Harbinger House, which long generated complaints from residents and was a drain on police.

"I don't want to see it go back to that use again," he said.

Mayor Bob Consalvo and Deputy Mayor Rob Marlowe sided with Phillips and voted to grant the continuance. Councilwoman Judy DeBella-Thomas — who is an employee of ARI as its marketing and enrollment liaison — did not attend the meeting due to illness. She has recused herself from past votes concerning ARI.

Lang brought up the issue up as part of legal briefing to the council, so neither Randall nor her attorney, Barbara Wilhite, were in attendance. But on Thursday, Wilhite praised the city's willingness to move forward.

"ARI is pleased that the city continues to work with them to help be successful at this location so they can continue to bring needed jobs to the city," she said.

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