The Second District Court of Appeal yesterday issued an opinion in which it reversed a $16.5 million judgment against Pinellas County that had been previously entered in favor of the Richman Group, a ubiquitous multi-family developer with apartment projects across Florida. Richman Group had sued Pinellas County for denying its request for an amendment to the Pinellas county comprehensive plan to build a large apartment project in Safety Harbor on the site of the shuttered Firmenich juice plant on SR 590. The site is directly adjacent to two single family Safety Harbor neighborhoods. The residents of the adjoining residential neighborhoods mounted a spirited and well-organized opposition to the project at all levels of the approval process. After the City of Safety Harbor decided to support the Richman development, in spite of the community’s nearly unanimous opposition, and request an amendment to the comprehensive plan, the Pinellas County Commission denied the application, taking into account, among other things, the valid arguments in opposition presented by Safety Harbor residents. Frustrated with the county’s ruling, Richman Group sued Pinellas county in Circuit Court, asserting that Richman’s Constitutional rights had been violated. The Circuit Court agreed and entered a $16.5 million judgment in favor of the Richman Group and against Pinellas County. It is noteworthy that the taxpayers of Pinellas county would have ended up footing the bill to pay that judgment.
In reversing the judgment, the appellate court held that it was absolutely appropriate for the Pinellas County Commission to consider the rights and opinions of the people whose homes and lives will be directly negatively effected if the Richman apartment project were built. Richman argued vigorously that the Commission’s considerations could not properly include the interests of the adjoining residents, attempting to downplay the merits of the residents’ arguments in opposition. Thankfully, the appellate court correctly rejected Richman’s arguments soundly and definitively made clear that the voice of the people is a valid consideration, and reversed the judgment.
Richman may have the option to appeal to the Florida Supreme Court. Local residents and Floridians in general should keep their eye on this case. As it now stands, the Second DCA made it crystal clear that the unified voices of the residents of Safety Harbor carried the day. This case is a significant victory for the rights of average citizens, one of the basic principals upon which this great country was founded.