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Judges dismiss lawsuits challenging luxury apartments on Anclote River

An appellate panel rules that a citizens group has no legal standing to sue, but gives them 30 days to try again.
A salt marsh flourishes on the Anclote River on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, north of the shoreline where developer Morgan Group plans to build 404 apartments on the nearly 74-acre site in Tarpon Springs. These coastal wetlands areas are rich in marine life are sometimes called tidal marshes because they occur in the zone between low and high tides.
A salt marsh flourishes on the Anclote River on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, north of the shoreline where developer Morgan Group plans to build 404 apartments on the nearly 74-acre site in Tarpon Springs. These coastal wetlands areas are rich in marine life are sometimes called tidal marshes because they occur in the zone between low and high tides. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Mar. 28, 2022|Updated Mar. 28, 2022

TARPON SPRINGS — The environmental group fighting the 404-unit luxury apartment complex that the city approved last year to be built along the Anclote River has received its first legal blow.

On Friday, a Pinellas County Circuit Court appellate panel ruled that Concerned Citizens of Tarpon Springs does not have the legal standing to sue the city or the developer, Morgan Development Group.

The panel consolidated three complaints that Concerned Citizens has filed over the past year and dismissed them while keeping the door open for the group to amend its petition. The group has 30 days to show it has standing or its complaint will be denied for good, according to the judges’ order.

“We are obviously pleased with the court’s decision,” Ed Armstrong, an attorney representing Morgan Group, said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times. “We felt all along that the multiple lawsuits filed against the project were frivolous and totally without merit.”

Jane Graham, the attorney representing Concerned Citizens, declined to comment citing pending litigation.

Morgan Group, a Texas-based housing developer, first applied to build the complex in 2020. In January 2021, the Tarpon Springs Board of Commissioners gave the project the first of two required approvals.

The site of the proposed Anclote Harbor apartment complex on a site along the Anclote River, east of U.S. 19 in Tarpon Springs.
The site of the proposed Anclote Harbor apartment complex on a site along the Anclote River, east of U.S. 19 in Tarpon Springs. [ City of Tarpon Springs ]

Concerned Citizens then sued, noting that conditions for a second access point into the proposed complex were added the day of the vote. They alleged that created an illegal agreement and robbed residents of due process.

In July, Morgan Group submitted a new application, this one including details for the second access point. The new submittal required the developer to start the city’s review process from the beginning.

During a nine-hour meeting that adjourned at 3:31 a.m. on on Nov. 10, the commission voted 3-1 to approve the final site plan for the project. Then-commissioner Costa Vatikiotis, who has since been elected mayor, voted no. Then-commissioner Townsend Tarapani recused himself because his stepmother works for the developer.

Concerned Citizens filed two subsequent complaints that alleged a variety of violations.

In one, Concerned Citizens alleged the city violated its comprehensive plan by approving an exclusively residential development in a “commercial general” district that allows residential only as a secondary or supplemental use. The group also alleged the city violated the public’s due process during the hearing on the preliminary application, which lasted 10 hours and didn’t get to citizen comment until after 2:30 a.m. on Oct. 29.

In a response, Morgan Group stated the city’s approval of a residential project in a “commercial general” district complies with the city’s land development code and comprehensive plan.

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The developer also responded that Concerned Citizens’ allegations of a lack of due process were baseless. The city held 24 hours of testimony over six days on the application, well above the legal requirement that the public be given notice and an opportunity to be heard, according to the company’s filing.

The judges’ ruling on Friday, however, did not delve into the details of these due process and comprehensive plan arguments. It also noted that Concerned Citizens should have filed a complaint regarding alleged comprehensive plan violations in a separate motion.

In order to sue the city and developer, Concerned Citizens had to show it had standing, meaning “a legally recognizable interest which is or will be affected” by the city’s approval of the project, according to the order.

The three-judge panel ruled that Concerned Citizens lacked standing because it did not prove that it would suffer any “special injury different than that of the Tarpon Springs community as a whole.”

The environmental nonprofit said the development would cause it special injury because it is “dedicated to preserving the environmental beauty and wildlife of the Anclote River” and that its members use the river for recreation, according to the order. But the judges stated that the nonprofit itself owns no property, and therefore has no legal interest that would be affected by the project.

The nonprofit also argued it had standing because the group works to preserve the unique identity, small town character and cultural heritage directly surrounding the Anclote River. But the judges noted that the project site is on U.S. 19, a major highway, surrounded by retail, residential and commercial development, which “does not appear to be unique or small town.”

Concerned Citizens and 17 individuals also sued the city in 2005 after it approved a plan for Walmart to build a Supercenter on this same site along the Anclote River. In 2006, the court denied the complaint, stating the city followed essential requirements of law and that the petitioners were afforded due process.

Although Walmart defeated the court challenge, it still walked away from the project, leaving uncertainty over the site until Morgan Group applied to develop it in 2020.

In their order on Friday, the judges noted that Concerned Citizens pointed to the 2005 case to show it has standing today. But the judges called this reliance “misplaced” because the 17 individuals in that case had standing, not the nonprofit group.