TARPON SPRINGS — A three-judge panel has upheld the city’s 2021 approval of an apartment complex on the Anclote River, legally affirming a project that is being scrutinized by city commissioners elected after the project got the green light.
The Concerned Citizens of Tarpon Springs nonprofit sued the city and developer Morgan Group last year, alleging the application did not comply with the city’s comprehensive plan. The group also argued the public was denied a fair opportunity to be heard during hearings that ran into early morning hours.
The Pinellas County Circuit Court appellate panel ruled on Wednesday that the city correctly applied the law in granting approvals for the project and “unquestionably afforded members of the public due process” while hearing comments from 60 residents in multiple meetings.
“The court got it wrong and (the plaintiffs) will continue all legal options available to stop this development,” said Jane Graham, an attorney representing Concerned Citizens.
The commission gave final approval to the 404-unit Anclote Harbor Apartments proposed east of U.S. 19 in November 2021 with a 3-1 vote. Concerned Citizens asked the commission in December to halt permits until the lawsuit it filed challenging the project was resolved. The elected officials declined.
Three months later, a majority of new commissioners were elected who opposed the project.
In June, the new commission voted 4-1 to halt permits for Anclote Harbor’s construction until the lawsuit was resolved. Attorneys representing Morgan Group then filed a motion asking the circuit court to reverse the stay.
In October, the commission also voted to hire a special counsel to investigate city staff’s dealings with Morgan Group, which included three years of discussions before the application became public.
The judges’ order on Wednesday did not address the status of the city’s stay preventing the issuing of permits.
An appellate panel had dismissed Concerned Citizens’ case in March, ruling the group didn’t have legal standing to sue the city or developer in the first place. The nonprofit then amended its petition.
In its order on Wednesday, the panel declined to rule on the standing issue because it was “still debatable,” and instead ruled on the merits of the case “to move this matter along.”
Concerned Citizens alleged the city violated state law and city codes by approving an exclusively residential development in a “commercial general” district that allows residential only as a secondary or supplemental use.
But the appellate panel ruled city code does not prohibit a secondary use being on its own as long as it does not exceed density limits of 15 units per acre. The Morgan Group project accounts for 6.3 units per acre.
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The judges also rejected Concerned Citizens’ argument that the approvals are invalid because the city applied an “on balance” standard that allowed inconsistencies with the comprehensive plan. The judges ruled city staff found the project was consistent with all goals, objectives and policies of the comprehensive plan.
In addition, the judges threw out the nonprofit’s allegation that the city approved a rezoning ordinance that had illegal conditions with the developer.
While Concerned Citizens argued it was denied due process, the judges pointed to multiple hearings where the nonprofit’s representatives were allowed to testify, present evidence, cross examine witnesses, and make opening and closing statements.
“We have felt all along that the commission’s approval of the project was proper and appropriate, and it’s nice to have that affirmed by the appellate court,” said Ed Armstrong, an attorney representing Morgan Group.