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Thursday, Apr 25, 2019
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Pinellas News

Developer officially loses fight for $16.5 million judgment against Pinellas County

Six years after the Pinellas County Commission squashed an apartment complex proposal in Safety Harbor, the county has prevailed for good over the developer's lengthy legal challenge that followed the commission's 2013 vote.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a petition from the Richman Group of Florida, "ending this matter once and for all," County Attorney Jewel White said in an email to county officials.

Richman executive vice president Todd Fabbri did not immediately respond to a request for comment. An attorney who represented Richman in the initial land use case, Ed Armstrong of the firm Hill Ward Henderson, declined to comment on Monday.

The dispute centered on whether the County Commission ignored county policy amid pressure from residents when it blocked Richman's apartment development in 2013. And taxpayers could have been on the hook for millions if the West Palm Beach developer had prevailed.

In 2013 Richman proposed building a 246-unit, three-story luxury apartment complex with 25,000 square feet of office space on a 35-acre site near State Road 590 and McMullen-Booth Road.

The Safety Harbor City Commission in February 2013 approved the required zoning change from industrial to residential use. But the County Commission unanimously denied it, pointing to a policy aimed at preserving industrial land to bring more jobs to the area.

Dozens of residents also spoke out against the project at meetings and in letters.

Richman appealed the county's decision to an administrative judge, who sided with the developer. But the commission rejected the rezoning request a second time in 2014.

In 2016 a Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge ruled the commissioners based their decision "on a desire to appease the Safety Harbor residents" instead of county policy and owed Richman $16.5 million in damages and interest as a result.

But Florida's 2nd District Court of Appeal overturned the lower court's decision in 2017, ruling "the trial court erred in concluding that the county had no rational basis to deny the proposed amendment."

The Florida Supreme Court declined to hear Richman's appeal in November, White said, before the group submitted it to the U.S. Supreme Court. The county spent about $67,000 through the trial phase and another $248,000 thru the appeals process defending its case, according to White.

White said the county has a motion to tax costs against Richman pending that she said could potentially recoup $37,000.

County Commission Vice Chair Pat Gerard said the highest court's rejection to even hear the case is a win for the authority of local governments to make decisions in the best interest of the public.

"We're very glad it's pretty much over," Gerard said. "It was challenging our right to make any kind of decisions on land use. I think that would have had serious implications had they prevailed in that because we should have the ability to say yes or no."

Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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