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717 Parking takes Tampa to court over Ybor land-use fight

The company’s owners, the Accardi brothers, warned they would sue the city. Now, they are.
 
As the dispute drags on, Ybor residents argue there is more than just bookkeeping issue and zoning conflict at stake: The well-being of their neighborhood is, too.
As the dispute drags on, Ybor residents argue there is more than just bookkeeping issue and zoning conflict at stake: The well-being of their neighborhood is, too. [ CHLOE TROFATTER | Times ]
Published Sept. 14, 2023|Updated Sept. 14, 2023

TAMPA — A neighborhood dispute decades in the making and involving a Tampa surface parking lot giant has now landed in court.

Jason and John Accardi, owners of Ybor Properties and 717 Parking, filed a petition late last month in Hillsborough Circuit Court arguing that Tampa City Council violated their rights by voting to overturn a decision that they say allowed them to continue operating two parking lots in Ybor City.

“City Council ignored the well supported factual findings and resulting conclusions of law in favor of its own interpretation of the City Code which is entirely unsupported by facts and law,” reads the petition, filed by Ethan Loeb, a Tampa-based attorney representing the Accardis. Loeb has been the attorney in a few high-profile cases against the city in recent years.

The morning of the council vote in July, Loeb’s firm warned board members of his clients’ intent to sue should they vote against the Accardis’ use of the properties, records obtained by the Tampa Bay Times show.

The parking lot dispute traces its origins back 23 years, when the city announced that all vacant Ybor lots would be rezoned as mixed-use, a measure they hoped would promote residential development. Mixed-use properties cannot be used as full-time parking lots under city code.

But a property owner could have opted out of the rezoning before a set deadline.

The city cited 717 for a code violation in March 2021. The Accardi brothers say they submitted the necessary paperwork for their 1916 and 1918 E Fifth Ave. properties to stay zoned for parking by 717, which has at least 40 parking lots throughout downtown, the Channel District and Ybor.

The city’s office of Land Development Coordination denied their claim in August 2021 but reversed its decision two weeks later, based on a decades-old letter the Accardis provided asking for the lots to remain zoned for commercial use.

Ybor Realtor Joseph Caldwell, also named in the Accardis’ lawsuit, filed a petition to have the decision reviewed. He argued that the zoning administrator should not have considered the letter because there was no public record verifying its origin.

The brothers’ consultant, Stephen Michelini, testified under oath at a hearing with an independent special magistrate this May that he hand delivered a copy of it to the city in 2000.

Related: Ybor residents, 717 Parking spar over land use, validity of records

A hearing officer has twice recommended denying Caldwell’s petition and affirmed the Accardis’ lots to be zoned for parking.

This June, the City Council voted 5-2 that the hearing officer “should have done more due diligence or forensic investigation” into the letter. The council argued the testimony received by Michelini was “not competent or substantial evidence.”

In July, the City Council unanimously approved a final order that upheld the original zoning administrator’s decision, saying there is no evidence the property was historically used as a parking lot.

In court filings, Ybor Properties argues the City Council didn’t establish the grounds to overturn the hearing officer’s recommendation or findings.

Loeb has sued the city of Tampa at least three times in recent years on behalf of clients. In 2021, he filed a public records lawsuit against former city council member John Dingfelder, leading to Dingfelder’s resignation. Loeb also represented a woman who accused former council member Orlando Gudes of harassment in the workplace. The city paid her $200,000 to settle the case.

Last year, Loeb subpoenaed a former City Council candidate over a Facebook account that was critical of business consultant Michelini in another matter. And earlier this year, developer Punit Shah hired Loeb as legal counsel in a $6.6 million lawsuit against the city after City Council nixed Shah’s plan to build a hotel on Harbour Island. The proposal has sparked an outcry from residents. The lawsuit is ongoing, according to court records. Efforts to reach Loeb by phone this week were unsuccessful.

As the parking lot dispute drags on, some Ybor residents argue there is more than just bookkeeping issue and zoning conflict at stake: The well-being of their neighborhood is, too.

“We’re sympathetic with the concerns of neighbors and are actively engaging with them and the owners and operators of paid parking lots to improve the situation,” city communications director Adam Smith told the Times in an email.

“Parking lot parties, loud music, crime and trash are commonplace in many of these lots and the residents are fed up,” the Historic Ybor Neighborhood Civic Association wrote in a statement to the Times.

The group says its members “regularly witness many private parking lot operators not following City Code,” and have had several meetings with Mayor Jane Castor and staff to raise their concerns about the city’s “very poor job” of holding operators accountable.

“Many of these lots,” the civic association said, “are a blight to Ybor City.”

Times staff writer Paul Guzzo contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the order of two votes by the City Council pertaining to the zoning on two lots in Ybor City.