The Houston-based developer planning an apartment complex along the Anclote River is pushing to begin construction after a long legal fight, but Tarpon Springs officials opposed to the project appear in no hurry to grant permits.
An attorney representing Morgan Group sent a letter on Jan. 25 demanding the city issue building permits for the project’s 404 apartments, stating the developer has met all 11 conditions that came with the City Commission’s 2021 approval.
Permitting had been halted on the project since June, when the commission enacted a stay until a lawsuit by Concerned Citizens of Tarpon Springs challenging the project played out in court. A three-judge panel in Pinellas County Circuit Court upheld the commission’s approval in November and lifted the stay on Jan. 13.
But while Morgan Group pushes forward on the heels of its legal victory, it still faces pushback. Commissioners have hinted that permits may not be handed over so easily, and Concerned Citizens has continued its legal battle, filing an appeal on Jan. 17.
The nonprofit alleges the approval violated code by allowing housing on property that the city’s land-use map designated primarily for commercial, a claim the circuit court rejected.
“The circuit court got it wrong,” said Jane Graham, an attorney representing Concerned Citizens. “Morgan Group tried to short circuit the city’s land-use process, which is going to have a huge impact on these 74 acres, which are treasured by my client.”
City Manager Mark LeCouris and Planning Director Renea Vincent declined to confirm whether Morgan Group has completed all steps needed to obtain its building permits. But in an email to the Tampa Bay Times, Mayor Costa Vatikiotis said the city needs verification to confirm that a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit is not required.
Ed Armstrong, an attorney representing Morgan Group, pushed back, stating the developer “is in fact legally entitled to its permits.”
“The Morgan Group is highly confident that we have met all permitting requirements and we look forward to proceeding with the project,” he said.
For nearly a year, the city has found itself on both sides of the issue, both defending and fighting the project.
The Concerned Citizens’ lawsuit challenging the November 2021 approval named the city and Morgan Group as defendants. But then an election in March 2022 brought three new commissioners into office who opposed the project during their campaigns.
In December, the new commission hired the Tampa-based Carlton Fields law firm to investigate the project’s origins, including discussions city staff had with Morgan Group representatives in the three years before the application was submitted. The probe could cost $160,000 and last eight months.
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During a Jan. 17 work session about Carlton Fields’ scope of work, at least two city officials pondered whether the commission’s 2021 approval of the apartments could be reversed if the law firm discovers improprieties in the process leading up to the vote.
Vatikiotis allowed commissioner-elect John Koulianos to participate in the meeting because in April he will succeed term-limited Commissioner Jacob Karr after no other candidate filed for the seat. Koulianos asked Carlton Fields shareholder Adam Schwartz about what kind of legal fight the commission could expect if it took a revote and whether the city would be liable for losses to the developer.
“Is our objective to kill the Anclote Harbor project? That might be an objective,” Koulianos asked rhetorically. “Or is it to improve our processes and establish better governmental priorities?”
Commissioner Panagiotis Koulias agreed that, after Carlton Fields completes its investigation, he wants to see whether there is “enough evidence for a recall or a revote for consideration of that project.”
Armstrong said he sees the commentary differently.
“Concerned Citizens and the city have failed miserably before the courts because their position is unfounded factually and legally,” Armstrong said. “And now the city is pursuing a politically motivated witch hunt, which is simply a waste of time and $160,000 of taxpayer money.”
While the developer pursues its permits, Graham, the attorney representing Concerned Citizens, said she is confident in the merits of their appeal. She said Florida case law has established that if a court rules against a project that is already built it must be removed, “so they are doing this at their own risk.”