Judge rules that Pinellas County owes developer $16.5 million in Safety Harbor apartment complex dispute

An artist's rendering of the Richmond Group's plans for a 246-unit luxury apartment complex at McMullen-Booth Road and State Road 590 in Safety Harbor. [Gulf Coast Consulting, the Richman Group, etc.]
An artist's rendering of the Richmond Group's plans for a 246-unit luxury apartment complex at McMullen-Booth Road and State Road 590 in Safety Harbor. [Gulf Coast Consulting, the Richman Group, etc.]
Published June 30, 2016

In 2013, Pinellas County commissioners unanimously rejected an apartment complex to the cheers of Safety Harbor residents.

Three years later, the bill has come due.

A judge issued a decision Wednesday declaring that the county owes the project's developer $16.5 million in damages and interest for rejecting the apartment complex.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Walter Schafer Jr. ruled that commissioners based their decision "on a desire to appease the Safety Harbor residents" instead of county policy.

The decision was the latest development in the yearslong saga between Pinellas County and the Richman Group of Florida, the West Palm Beach developer who proposed building the 246-unit, three-story luxury apartment complex with 25,000 square feet of office space.

But to build it, Richman needed approval from the Safety Harbor City Commission and the Pinellas County Commission for a zoning amendment to change the 35-acre site near State Road 590 and McMullen-Booth Road from industrial to residential use.

The City Commission approved the change in February 2013. But three months later, county commissioners unanimously denied it. They pointed to a county policy aimed at preserving industrial land to bring more jobs to the area. They also sided with the dozens of residents who spoke out against the project at meetings and in letters.

Richman appealed the county's decision to an administrative judge, who sided with the developer. County attorney Jim Bennett told the commission he agreed with the judge's ruling, that the industrial lands preservation policy applied only in unincorporated areas, not cities.

He also warned that a denial would expose the county to a lawsuit.

Still, commissioners rejected the rezoning request a second time in 2014. Current board members Charlie Justice, Janet Long, John Morroni, Karen Seel and Ken Welch all voted to deny Richman's request.

"There's nobody other than the applicant who's in support of this thing, so I'm not changing my vote," Morroni said at the second vote. His comments were cited in the judge's decision.

It is unknown what the county's next steps will be, or whether it will appeal. The county attorney could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Welch said he and several county commissioners were at a Florida Association of Counties conference in Orlando and had not yet discussed the ruling with their attorney. But he said he stood by his vote.

"The concept of local government having the authority to make land use decisions based on the community's vision for its future … is paramount," he said. "This is principle worth fighting for."

The attorneys who represented Richman, Ed Armstrong and Scott McLaren of the firm Hill Ward Henderson, said in a statement "that the evidence was overwhelming that Richman's constitutional rights were violated, and that the client was very pleased that the Court protected those rights."

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Armstrong declined to comment further, citing a possible appeal.

The proposed site of the apartments, which used to be home to the former Firmenich Citrus Plant, has remained the same throughout the dispute: vacant, save for a few empty buildings.

BayCare Health Systems was poised to build administrative offices on the property that would have brought at least 350 jobs to the city. But in March the medical group backed out days before the plan was to go before city commissioners. Representatives declined to say why.

That disappointed some of the same Safety Harbor residents who opposed the complex. Sandy Blood, who lives in a neighborhood bordering the property, said BayCare's plan would not have brought the severe traffic congestion neighbors feared the apartment complex would have.

After learning that Pinellas is on the hook for a $16.5 million judgment, she stuck with her position. "It wasn't the right fit for our community," Blood said.

Steve Rosenthal, another opponent, said the number of units was too high and reiterated his concerns about traffic and property values:

"Would I change my mind? Would I fight again today? Yes, I would."

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or Follow @kathrynvarn.