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Pinellas County Commission sued over rejected Safety Harbor apartment plan

SAFETY HARBOR — A developer is suing the County Commission, saying the board twice illegally blocked plans for a controversial apartment complex against the recommendation of an administrative judge and the advice of its own attorney.

The Richman Group of Florida's lawsuit, filed in Pinellas circuit court, says commissioners Ken Welch, Janet Long, Norm Roche, Charlie Justice, Susan Latvala, Karen Seel and John Morroni bowed to political pressure last winter when they rejected plans for a high-end residence in Safety Harbor. The 246-unit, three-story luxury residence and offices were proposed for a 35-acre, industrially zoned property on the northeast corner of 10th Street S and McMullen-Booth Road.

According to the suit, county officials should have considered only things like traffic data and the proposal's consistency with established government rules — as had the Safety Harbor City Commission and four advisory groups who okayed the project despite months of protests by neighbors. Opponents called the plan tacky and bemoaned its potential harm on the environment, traffic and property values.

But when it came before the county last May, commissioners voted down a necessary zoning change, citing its policy of preserving industrial land to encourage companies to move here.

The West Palm Beach development firm appealed to an administrative judge, who ruled in November that commissioners' worry could not play a factor in their decision. And when the measure came back before the panel in January, Pinellas County Attorney Jim Bennett seconded the judicial ruling. Bennett also explained that the county's 2006 policy covered only unincorporated areas because county staff at the time wanted to leave it up to cities to decide whether to rezone their industrial land.

County commissioners acknowledged that they were likely inviting a lawsuit from the Richman Group, and rejected the project a second time anyway.

The developers' lawsuit says commission's "arbitrary" decision is "without any legal or factual justification" and inconsistent with decisions on similar projects, such as the approved rezoning of the former Nielsen property in Dunedin.

"Not one professional planner, engineer or consultant employed or retained by any public or private entity — NOT ONE — opined that Richman's (plan) did not meet the six enumerated criteria — or recommend that (it) be denied," reads the suit in bolded letters.

Contact Keyonna Summers at ksummers@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4153. Follow @KeyonnaSummers.

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