Legal claim filed against city over medical complex denial

The owner of the Safety Harbor property where medical offices had been proposed before the Safety Harbor City Commission denied the site plan has taken the first step in legal action against the city over the denial.

Vineyard Haven Properties Inc., owner of the parcel at the corner of State Roads 580 and 590, on Sept. 5 filed what’s called a “writ of certiorari,” which is the legal remedy available to challenge a quasi-judicial decision, with the Circuit Court of the Sixth Judicial Circuit in Pinellas County. Here is the link to their filing, and here are some questions and answers on the details of the site plan, City Commission’s decision and what the next steps will be:

What was proposed in the site plan?

The developer, 9 Guys Realty LLC, submitted a site plan to build two two-story medical office buildings, one that was 12,000 square feet and the other 10,000 square feet, on the undeveloped 2.24-acre property across the street from the La Playa Estates subdivision. The land is designated as Residential Office Limited on the city’s Future Land Use map and located in the city’s General Office zoning area. 

How did the city review the site plan?

The city’s Technical Review Committee, which is comprised of department heads, said the plan met all city codes and no variances were requested by the applicant. The committee also said the plan provided more parking than required under city code, and the development’s intensity and building heights were less than is allowed under city code. 

The technical review also showed that the site plan included the cutting down of 44 protected trees that were not deemed to be hazardous by the city’s arborist, with the applicant planning to replant 30 trees and pay $5,766.60 into the city’s tree fund for the other 14. Also, the applicants agreed to a suggestion from the city arborist to redesign the initial plan to save a 34-inch live oak tree.

A traffic study was conducted, and suggested that a left turn lane be added on Philippe Parkway for deceleration, which the applicant agreed to, and the Florida Department of Transportation said the best access point for cars into and out of the development to be on Philippe Parkway.

The city’s Planning & Zoning Board unanimously recommended the site plan’s approval.

What happened at the Aug. 5 City Commission hearing?

All site plan considerations are what is known as “quasi-judicial hearings,” which mimic aspects of a courtroom process, including the applicant, city staff and anyone who proves they have “affected party” status to be sworn in, provide evidence and be able to cross-examine, if desired. A court reporter may be present. While the public gets the opportunity to speak prior to the vote, Commission is bound to make its decision based solely on “competent substantial evidence” presented at the meeting. In short, facts and opinions from experts may be considered, but only facts and not opinions from residents may be considered.

After city staff and the applicant made their presentations, several residents voiced opposition to the project, with those who live close to the proposed development concerned about increased traffic and noise, and some residents who don’t live near the development concerned about the number of trees that were to be cut down.

After hearing all of the evidence, Commissioner Andy Zodrow made a motion to deny the site plan, which was seconded by Commissioner Nancy Besore. The site plan was denied by a vote of 3-2, with Zodrow, Besore and Vice Mayor Cliff Merz voting to deny it and Mayor Joe Ayoub and Commissioner Carlos Diaz voting against denial. City Attorney Nikki Day asked those who voted to deny the site plan to state their reasons for doing so as required, and the three cited traffic concerns of being incompatible with the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

How did the property owner respond?

Vineyard Haven Properties Inc. on Sept. 5 filed its writ of certiorari request with the circuit court, and sent the city a separate letter requesting a rehearing. In the court filing, the property owner said there was no “competent evidence whatsoever” presented to support the denial, and that “the City Commission denied the application solely to appease the neighbors/objectors who strenuously objected to the application – based on nothing more than ‘not in my backyard’ feelings and their preference that the property remain undeveloped.” The petition also said that “the reasons given by Commissioner Zodrow were pretextual and false.” 

The property owner is asking the circuit court to “quash” the ruling or, in other words, vacate the Commission’s decision and require a rehearing. In its letter to the city, Hill Ward Henderson, the property owner’s law firm, said at such a rehearing, “the owner will present evidence that was not previously considered or was factually misconstrued.”  

What happens now?

The Oct. 7 Commission agenda will include an item about the applicant’s request for a rehearing. Only those who voted to deny the site plan may make a motion to hold a rehearing, meaning Zodrow, Besore or Merz will be the only ones permitted to make that motion. If none of the three do, or if one does but the motion dies without a second or receives a second but is voted down, the decision on a rehearing rests with the circuit court. If the circuit court decides there is reason to quash the Commission’s decision, then a rehearing will be required. If it does not see reason to quash the Commission’s decision, the applicant can appeal to the district court.

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