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Date of Issue: March 17, 2005

Lawsuit filed against Anna Maria, arbitration hearing requested

True to their word, Robert and Nicky Hunt have filed a lawsuit against the City of Anna Maria requesting that the circuit court overturn the Aug. 2 city commission denial of their site plan for their property at 303 Pine Ave.

The lawsuit was filed Sept. 1, but attorney Peter Mackey, representing the Hunts, has asked for a special master hearing first to resolve the dilemma before the court case proceeds (The Islander, Sept. 1). The commission is scheduled to discuss the special master hearing request at 6:45 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 9.

In a special master hearing, both the city and the Hunts would agree on an independent third party, usually a retired judge, to mediate the case. Both sides present arguments and discuss issues to reach a solution. The special master considers all the evidence, testimony and applicable laws and codes and issues a non-binding ruling, usually a compromise proposed.

The commission then has the option of accepting or rejecting the ruling. A rejection of a special master ruling by the commission would allow the lawsuit to proceed, Mackey said.

The Hunts had submitted a site plan for 303 Pine Ave. which would have been a three-story structure in the residential-office-retail zone with ground-floor retail and some retail/office space on the second floor. The remaining portion of the second floor and all of the third floor would be devoted exclusively to the Hunts' residence.

In the Aug. 2 denial, Commissioners Linda Cramer, Carol Ann Magill and Dale Woodland voted against the site plan, while Commission Chairperson John Quam and Commissioner Duke Miller favored acceptance.

The 3-2 denial came despite an opinion by City Attorney Jim Dye that the site plan was legal under the city's comprehensive plan and accompanying code, a unanimous recommendation for approval from the planning and zoning board, and recommendations for approval from city engineers Baskerville-Donovan Inc., planning consultant Joel Freedman and Building Official Kevin Donohue.

In the lawsuit, Mackey claims that "at no time was any evidence presented to the city in support of, or providing a basis for denying, the site plan application."

Therefore, said Mackey, "The city's Aug. 2 denial of the Hunts site plan "is legally improper and not based upon substantial and competent evidence."

Despite the "plain language of the city's code and comp plan," and evidence presented in support of the site plan, "certain commissioners interpreted the comp plan to restrict an ROR building to two stories," he added.

Therefore, the city's denial is "arbitrary, unreasonable and discriminatory relative to the Hunts," said Mackey.

The suit asked that the court declare the city's Aug. 2 decision an "abuse of discretion," and enter an order to "show cause why the city's denial of the Hunts' site plan should not be overturned," and also award the Hunts their attorney fees and other costs relative to the case.

Ironically, the Hunt site plan application was the first under review procedures adopted by the city in March 2004 for major projects and developments.

The second application under the new procedures was from the Waterfront Restaurant and that, too, nearly ended up in court until a last-minute compromise between the restaurant owners and commissioners resulted in approval.

There has been no third application under the procedures, and P&Z board vice chairman Charles Canniff has suggested to the commission that in view of the problems with the first two applications, it might be wise for the board and commission to hold a joint meeting as soon as possible to see where the problems lie and what corrective measures might be taken.

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