Judge’s Ruling Could Lead To Firmenich Property Development

Firmenich Citrus Center property.

A developer wants to build an apartment complext on the Firmenich Citrus Center property

A recent ruling by a judge from the State of Florida’s Division of Administrative Hearings could send a proposal for development of the Firmenich property back to the county for another vote.

The Richman Group of Florida’s proposal to build a 246-unit apartment complex, along with 25,000 square feet of office space, on the 34-acre parcel in Safety Harbor was denied by the Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners (acting as the Countywide Planning Authority) by a vote of 7-0 back in May.

Richman representatives immediately filed an appeal with the state, which was heard by Judge Bram D.E. Canter in August.

Nearly three months after that hearing, Canter recommended the CPA approve the applicant’s proposed amendment to the Countywide Planning Map. The ruling states:

“Based on the foregoing Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, it is RECOMMENDED that the Countywide Planning Authority issue a final order approving the amendment.”

When contacted by Safety Harbor Connect, Safety Harbor Mayor Joe Ayoub said the city is still looking into what the judge’s decision means.

“We just got the decision last night, and our lawyers and staff are still going through it trying to understand what it means,” Ayoub said by phone. “We’re trying to understand what the process is, what the city’s obligations are, what the county’s obligations are and what the applicant’s obligations are.”

“What we do know is the administrative judge made his findings of fact, and he recommended the Countywide Planning Authority takes those findings into account.”

In order to develop the parcel, located on 10th Avenue South just east of McMullen Booth Road, the Richman Group needed to seek an amendment to the Countywide Plan Map, since it was petitioning to switch the zoning of 15.8 acres of the the land from Industrial Limited (IL) to Residential Medium (RM).

After receiving approval from the Safety Harbor City Commission as well as the Pinellas Planning Council, the CPA voted unanimously against the proposal, citing the need to preserve as much IL designated land in the county as possible.

But in Judge Cantor’s ruling, he sided in favor of arguments made by the applicant, namely that the location of the property is not conducive to many IL uses. According to Canter’s ruling:

“The determination by the CPA that the amendment is inconsistent with the Countywide Rules is based primarily on three propositions which are contrary to the preponderance of evidence.

The preponderance of the evidence shows that the parcel is inappropriate for several IL uses and the CPA wants the parcel reserved for only a few target employers.”

Canter went on to cite a 2008 study that determined that two-thirds of target industries operating in the county are on land designated not for industrial use, but on land designated for office use; the study also named five prime industrial areas in the county be preserved. The Firmenich property is not located in such an area.

“When all relevant factors are considered, the CPA appears to be taking a stand for preservation of industrial lands in the wrong place,” Canter concluded.

While city officials work to figure out what the next step is, one thing is clear: the judge is recommending the CPA hear Richman’s case again, and when it does so, it must take his findings into account when making a decision.

It also means if the board rules against the amendment again, it should be done so for reasons other than the one previously argued.

“I think at this point the county is going to be hard pressed to find another reason to deny the application,” Ayoub said.

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