Edgewater neighbors get up off the mat to appeal development ruling

Article Courtesy of  The Tampa Bay Newspapers

By John Guerra

Published July 26, 2019

CLEARWATER — Energized residents along Edgewater Drive will ask an administrative law judge to decide whether a tall condominium can be built in their neighborhood.

Kate Belniak, president of the Edgewater Drive Neighborhood Association, filed an appeal July 8, just two weeks after the Clearwater Community Development Board voted 5-2 to allow Valor Capital chief executive Moises Agami to build a seven-story condo at the corner of Edgewater Drive and Sunset Point Road.

The Edgewater neighborhood’s appeal — which seeks a reversal of the CDB’s decision to approve the condominium — claims that Valor Capital’s project fails to meet several non-negotiable requirements baked into Clearwater Community Development Code Section 3-914.

That code section states that new development projects in Clearwater must:

  • Be in harmony with the scale, bulk, coverage, density, and character of the properties in which it is located

  • Not significantly impair the value of adjacent land and buildings

  • Minimize traffic congestion

  • Be consistent with the community character of the immediate vicinity

  • Not adversely affect visual, acoustic and olfactory senses on adjacent properties.

Neither the CDB, nor city planning staff, satisfactorily considered the limitations during the seven-hour hearing, Belniak said.

“They didn’t show that they were conforming with those elements,” she said. “The staff just made the statement, ‘Oh, they are compliant with Tourist Zoning.’ But adjacent buildings to the condominium are not tourist, they are single-family homes.”

Former Clearwater City Councilman Bill Jonson, who represented the Clearwater Neighborhoods Coalition at the hearing, knows the planning approval process intimately. He has been on both sides of development issues since the 1980s and believes the city erred in its decision.

The rule that projects must be in “harmony with the scale, bulk … and character of the neighborhoods” and other development constraints has been upheld by the Clearwater City Council, Jonson told the Beacon. He points to the April 21, 2005, council vote to ensure that CDB development applications “shall meet each and every one of the … criteria.”

He also believes the CDB failed to properly weigh the code constraints against what he calls “inappropriate development.”

“There were several members of the public that brought up the (Section 3-914) elements at the podium, but for some reason, the majority of the board chose to not address them,” Jonson said.

The appeal will be heard by an administrative law judge appointed by the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings. A date for the hearing has not yet been set.

Edgewater residents and members of various other neighborhood associations packed the City Council chambers while others waited in the hallways to give sworn testimony at the June 25 quasi-judicial hearing. Hour after hour, residents and nearby neighbors went to the podium to argue that the project’s size ruined the quiet character of the well-established neighborhood.

Neighbors also urged the board to reject the project because the 80-unit building will block the views of St. Joseph’s Bay that the neighborhood has enjoyed for generations.

Agami’s lawyer, Brian Aungst Jr., and experts hired by the developer argued that the project was already allowed in the neighborhood, which has a zoning designation of “Tourist.” To build the 92-foot-tall building, however, Valor Capital needed what is known as Level 2 approval from the CDB.

The appeal also accuses the CDB of improperly limiting the “admittance of photographs, illustrative evidence, drawings, documents and other evidence” during the hearing.

Belniak, who got up off the mat after losing before the CDB, said she will continue the battle.

“We’re very much an old Florida neighborhood, that’s why people enjoy living in our neighborhood,” Belniak told the Beacon. “Other tall buildings will ruin the community feel.”

City Clerk Rosemarie Call said the appeal hearing has not been scheduled. It will be preceded by a legal notice announcing the date and location of the public hearing.