Judge awards developer more than $16 million in Safety Harbor case

The Firmeich property is located on Tenth Avenue South in Safety Harbor.

A Pinellas County judge awarded more than $16 million to the Richman Group of Florida, ruling the county wrongfully denied the developer’s attempt to build an apartment complex on the Firmenich Citrus Center property in Safety Harbor.

A Pinellas County judge awarded more than $16 million to the Richman Group of Florida on Wednesday, stating the county wrongfully denied the developer’s bid to build an apartment complex on the Firmenich site in Safety Harbor.

According to the ruling filed by Pinellas County Circuit Court Judge Walter L. Schafer, Jr., the county must pay a total of $16,539,577.95 in damages and interest due to decisions made by the Countywide Planning Authority.

“Because the CPA applied a non-existent criterion to deny Richman’s Amendment, the county acted arbitrarily and capriciously in violation of Richman’s Constitutional right to due process protections,” the ruling states.

According to the ruling, Richman “met its burden of establishing lost profits” from the failed deal, and the judge ruled that the developer was entitled to damages in the amount of $14,811,440, plus $1,728,137.95 in interest.

The judgement does not include attorney fees, which will be decided at a later date.

The “Firmenich saga” played out in the city over the course of a couple of years, after representatives of the Richman Group, which bills itself as “the seventh largest rental apartment owner” in the country, petitioned the City Commission in 2012 to change the zoning on a portion of the property so it could build a 296-unit apartment complex, with 25,000 square feet of office space, on the site.

After a number of revisions to the original proposal, and despite vehement protests by a group of residents in the area, the commission eventually approved the proposal by a 3-2 vote in February 2013.

But on May 7, 2013, the CPA denied the developer’s application, citing the desire to preserve industrial lands in the county as the reason behind its decision.

A Safety Harbor resident speaks out against the Richman Group's proposal at the Countywide Planning Authority meeting in January 2014.

A Safety Harbor resident speaks out against the Richman Group’s proposal at the Countywide Planning Authority meeting in January 2014.

The CPA then rejected the deal again in January 2014 after a judge recommended that the board should reconsider its initial ruling, and despite warnings from its attorney that the board was setting itself up for a lawsuit.

“The CPA was advised by the County Attorney, in no uncertain terms, that under the 2012 Act and the Countywide Rules, they were not free to deny the amendment based on their previous stated intent “to preserve industrial lands,” the ruling states. “Despite this advice, the stated basis for the final decision denying the Amendment was again “preservation of industrial lands.”

Schafer’s ruling was also critical of the CPA being swayed by the community’s opposition to the project.

“The evidence establishes that the CPA’s final decision was based on a desire to appease Safety Harbor residents, whose forceful opposition was brought to bear throughout the Countywide amendment process,” the ruling reads.

“Both Ms. Tarapani and the County’s Planning Director testified that neighborhood opposition is not a legitimate basis for denying a land use application.”

While the City of Safety Harbor and the commission were cleared of any blame in the case, one of the local lawmakers tasked with voting on the original proposal said the outcome could’ve been much worse.

“The ruling shows that me, Commissioner (Rick) Blake and Commissioner (Nina) Bandoni, when voting in favor of the project, were looking out for the best interests of the taxpayers of Safety Harbor,” former mayor Joe Ayoub told Safety Harbor Connect.

Former Safety Harbor Mayor Joe Ayoub voted in favor of the Richman Group's proposal in 2013.

Former Safety Harbor Mayor Joe Ayoub voted in favor of the Richman Group’s proposal in 2013.

“It would’ve been easy to play politics and bow to the pressure and deny the application, but we had the best interests of the citizens of Safety Harbor in mind.”

Ayoub, who lost a tight mayoral race to current mayor Andy Steingold in March 2014, said he was surprised when the county board decided to vote against the proposal.

“I was very surprised by that,” he said, “because I specifically remember their attorney warning the CPA that they were opening themselves up to a lawsuit.”

He added that while he was happy the lawsuit was not filed against the city, the repercussions of the entire ordeal could still be felt by its citizens.

“Had we denied the project, it would’ve been a catastrophe for the city,” Ayoub said. “We would have had to spend a lot of time, money and energy fighting it, and it would’ve put other projects on hold.”

“But it’s still unfair for the City of Safety Harbor, because the taxpayers here will still be affected by this ruling.”

Today, the Firmenich property is still vacant.

Recently, BayCare had planned to build a 120,000-sq.ft. office complex on the property.

However, the health care giant backed out of the deal at the eleventh hour.

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