Article Courtesy of The Tampa Bay Newspaper
By John Guerra
Published July 8, 2019
CLEARWATER — Residents of
the Edgewater neighborhood printed up
hundreds of “No Tall Condos” T-shirts and
wrote reams of letters to city planning
officials. They wore campaign buttons
declaring their opposition and held up signs
at boisterous public rallies.
When it came time to
argue against a 100-foot-tall condominium project before the
Community Development Board, they were outgunned. The board
— consisting of a commercial real estate lawyer, a landscape
architect, a civil engineer, and former planning officials —
voted 5-2 on June 25 to allow Valor Capital chief executive
Moises Agami’s seven-story condominium building at the
corner of Edgewater Drive and Sunset Point Road.
The residents, driven to save their neighborhood of
single-family homes from what they call a “behemoth” that
would destroy the quiet character of the community as well
as extinguish sunset views of St. Joseph’s Bay, couldn’t
match the resources Valor Capital brought to the fight.
Veterans of Clearwater development battles say individual
residents and homeowners associations who oppose
construction projects often don’t have the resources to
match what their opponents enjoy: Lots of money and close
professional and cultural relationships with city lawyers,
code experts and planning staff. Unlike large developers,
residents often don’t have the money to hire subject-matter
experts and lawyers to help them argue their case. Nor do
average residents or neighborhood associations have the
expertise or training to follow legal procedure during
quasi-judicial hearings like the one that decided the fate
of Edgewater residents.
The vote to approve the Edgewater condominiums came after a
bruising, seven-hour hearing that allowed each side to
present sworn witnesses to support their arguments. The
witnesses were available for cross-examination, a process
with its own set of rules.
Members of the Edgewater Drive Neighborhood
Association rallied against a proposed seven-story condominium
building at the corner of Edgewater Drive and Sunset Point Road.
Though companies like Valor Capital can afford engineers,
air quality experts and other specialists to make cogent arguments before
boards, the nearly 150 Edgewater residents relied on each other to make
Though the board listened carefully to the urgings of the residents and
treated them respectfully, the difference in each side’s presentation was
Commercial real estate attorney and CDB Chairman Michael Boutzoukas
underscored the lack of experts on the residents’ side. After Valor
Capital’s traffic expert said that 80 new condo units would not increase
neighborhood traffic appreciably, Boutzoukas noted there was no one to
counter that for the residents.
“The one part that really bugs me time and time again, is (the residents)
not having a traffic engineer to contest (the developer’s) traffic study,”
Boutzoukas said at the end of the marathon hearing. “The traffic patterns
shift, you need an expert to come and contest that.”
Developers’ existing relationship with staff
CDB member D. Michael Flanery, a civil and environmental engineer who lives
near Edgewater Drive, said developers negotiate with city planners and other
city staff long before residents know a project is being planned for their
“(Developers) can hire the very best attorneys, because there’s a lot of
money on the line,” said Flanery, who voted against the Edgewater project.
“Development companies already operate within the connections of lawyers,
experts, and planning people who have done this process before. It’s really
hard for a small group like the Edgewater homeowners association to prepare
in the same way.”
Former Clearwater City Councilman Bill Jonson, who represented the
Clearwater Neighborhoods Coalition at the hearing, knows the planning
process intimately. The CNC opposed the Edgewater condo project. He was
interviewed separately from Flanery.
“The developer and the attorneys work from day one with a planning
department, which has a policy of allowing redevelopment,” Jonson said. “A
city planning department has a goal of a quick approval process, so there is
constant interaction between the city and the developer from the beginning.”
According to Jonson, a developer can bring an idea to the Clearwater
Planning and Development Department “on the back of a napkin and get
comments from planning staff” on the next steps. Meanwhile, neighborhood
associations don’t have the funds to hire lawyers. The residents of
Clearwater Point, who fought the expansion of the Chart House Suites, hired
an attorney for the initial fight in early 2019, but decided not to pay the
expense of appealing the City Council’s decision to allow the project.
The Edgewater Neighborhood Association, headed by Kate Belniak for the past
15 years, had trouble finding a land-use attorney and/or a planning expert
to help them present their evidence, Jonson said.
“They had to recuse themselves or were already involved in other cases or
had time conflicts,” he said. “They called at least four and were turned
Knowing procedure important
Belniak, a Pinellas 911 dispatcher, eventually found a planning expert,
Patricia Ortiz of Ortiz Planning Solutions LLC of Tampa, to argue the
residents’ case before the CDB. Quasi-judicial procedures strictly limit
when witnesses can introduce evidence, and at one point Ortiz apparently
didn’t understand that she had missed that opportunity.
“I’m certainly not trying to break the rules, this is my first time before
this board,” Ortiz responded when told she wasn’t following proper
procedure. “The rules are somewhat confusing to me, and probably to some
others in this room.”
Ortiz began to reframe her argument, but Boutzoukas had to stop her again.
“You seem to be straying into other areas … but volunteering testimony is
basically giving the presentation all over again and we can’t go down that
Boutzoukas kindly pointed out Belniak’s lack of legal experience when she
“I’m trying to be somewhat flexible because (Valor Capital attorney) Brian
Aungst Jr. does this for a living, and Miss Belniak does not. I’m trying to
allow some flexibility in that.”
What residents lack is a list of pro-bono attorneys who will help
neighborhoods fight development they oppose, Jonson said.
“The courts provide public defenders when people don’t have money for a
lawyer,” he said. “Why not provide a list of lawyers and planners willing to
represent the residents?”
Right argument, wrong time
In addition to Belniak, Jonson and Ortiz, individual residents took to the
podium to argue against the Edgewater condominiums. The speakers were
heartfelt, deploying cardboard models and kitchen-table sketches to indicate
what they consider the building’s overbearing bulk in relation to their
Without knowing development language, pertinent code and weak points in a
project’s plans, residents aren’t sure what to argue, Flanery said.
“Residents who lack expertise tend to argue things that aren’t in the CDB’s
purview,” Flanery said. “The number of parking spaces, for instance, are
handled before they reach the CDB. We can’t change that, it’s limited by
According to Jonson, the proper argument, which Belniak and other
individuals used, is the project fails to meet Section 3-914 of the
Clearwater development code. It states that proposed development of the land
will be in “harmony with the scale, bulk, coverage, density, and character
of adjacent properties in which it is located.”
The section also states that any new construction must also be consistent
with the character of the immediate vicinity of the parcel proposed for
development. The Valor Capital project certainly is not in harmony to that
neighborhood, he said.
“Most proposed developments I’ve seen don’t have the stark contrast this
building has on that community,” Jonson said.
The Clearwater Planning and Development Department’s website that helps
developers shepherd their construction projects is a valuable point of
reference for the general public, too. Information on proposed projects,
development review, design processes, and other details of projects citywide
are on the department’s website at www.myclearwater.com/government/city-departments/planning-development.
Sophisticated developers with deep pockets also understand the role politics
play in land battles. They hire people to work the room, sit in the audience
and cheer when positive things are said about their projects, and spread the
message of good things to come. They hire public relations people to work
the press and TV.
Weeks before the CDB hearing, Valor Capital erected a big sign on the
property, proclaiming that luxury condominiums were “Coming Soon!”