A Safety Harbor resident speaks out at the Board of County Commissioners meeting on Tuesday.
The Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday went against an administrative judge’s recent ruling and denied a proposed amendment that would have allowed a developer to build an apartment complex on the former site of the Firmenich Citrus Center in Safety Harbor.
The board, acting as the Countywide Planning Authority, voted 7-0 against the proposal for the second time in less than a year despite a November decision by Judge Bram D.E. Canter recommending the CPA approve the amendment. Canter based his findings on the fact that the board had erroneously voted down the proposal last May by going against guidelines that were present in the Countywide Plan Map.
Undeterred by the judge’s ruling or the fact that the CPM does not allow for county officials to make industrial zoning decisions in incorporated areas, the CPA unanimously stood by their original decision despite the legal ramifications that could come from it.
“If it were denied today, what would be the next likely step in the calendar?” Commissioner Charlie Justice asked City Attorney Jim Bennett prior to the voting.
“Essentially…the issue would be ripe for Circuit Court,” Bennett replied.
“We would be right to be sued?” Commissioner and board chair Karen Seel then asked.
“Yes,” Bennett responded.
Despite that reality, each board member stuck to his or her principals when it came time to vote on the matter.
Some said the reason they were backing their original decision had to do with the fact that they didn’t believe they were wrong to vote against the amendment the first time.
That’s because although the CPM did not specifically allow the board to make rulings on industrial lands in incorporated areas, leaving those decisions to city officials, many were under the impression they were allowed to overrule the plan if other mitigating factors were in place, and they often did so, according to one commissioner.
“This is a classic case of the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law,” Commissioner Norm Roche said. “The CPA has consistently considered issues outside the realm of the letter of the comprehensive plan.”
“Reversing this decision would in effect set a precedent that we will stand by the letter of the law in the comprehensive plan and takes flexibility out of our hands going forward.”
Other commissioners said they were staying with their original ruling because they believed the right to make decisions on industrial lands in incorporated areas had already been voted into the CPM, an issue that was to be addressed by the CPA immediately after the Firmenich ruling.
“When we finish this item, we will be putting it in the plan,” Vice Chair Susan Latvala said. “We thought we had put it in the plan in 2006. My question is, if we do put it in after this, can we still be taken to court?”
The question brought laughter from the audience and an affirmative reply from the city attorney.
After hearing comments from the lawyer for the applicant and some citizens of Safety Harbor, the board then made its unanimous vote, with Commissioner Justice making what could turn out to be a prophetic closing statement.
“I’m with my colleagues today, but I think we will be back here again,” he said.
Still, the decision was met with unabashed delight by the residents who have fought so hard against this issue for many months.
“I think the Commission finally listened to what the people were saying all along,” Russell Norman told Safety Harbor Connect afterwards. “We just continued to come out here and expressed the things we were worried about form the beginning…and they listened.”
“I’m completely surprised and utterly ecstatic,” Barbara Holland-Hugg said. “This was a great decision for the people of Safety Harbor.”
When asked what the ruling meant for the Richman Group and what their next step would be, attorney Ed Armstrong was non-committal.
“We don’t predict things, we just show up and make our case,” he said. “We will consider our options, talk to our client and see what the next move is.”
Harborites, what do you think about today’s ruling by the CPA? Let us know in the comments below.