BRADENTON -- Wells Fargo Bank is challenging the Bradenton City Council’s unanimous decision last month to reject the elimination of ground-floor retail from River Song, a pivotal waterfront development.
Wells Fargo, which owns the River Song parcel after purchasing it in a foreclosure sale in May, has filed a suit in circuit court and a land-use challenge to the council’s decision. The land-use challenge asks a special magistrate to overturn the decision.
The two filings contend the council’s decision was not based on “competent evidence.” The circuit court filing by Redus Florida Land, LLC, a subsidiary of Wells Fargo, also contends the council was swayed by citizen testimony that was based on “an apparent misunderstanding of and misstatements of fact.”
Wells Fargo attorney Andrea Zelman did not return several calls for comment Tuesday. But City Attorney Bill Lisch said Wells Fargo would be filing a motion to stay the proceedings of its lawsuit that was filed Friday, while its special magistrate request is processed. He described the lawsuit as a precautionary measure taken by Wells Fargo to preserve its legal right to appeal the council’s decision, a move which had to be taken within 30 days of the June 13 letter that formally announced the council’s June 9 vote.
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Council member Gene Gallo said the city has hired an outside legal firm to handle Wells Fargo’s actions.
Council member Bemis Smith, who had made the original motion to deny the River Song amendment at the packed June 9 meeting, said he is confident “a just and legal decision was made.”
“We’ll let the lawyers sort it out, but I felt like based on my discussions with our attorney ahead of time, we addressed the law,” he said.
The Redus lawsuit and Wells Fargo’s request for a special magistrate hearing both contend the City Council failed to follow a recommendation for approval by its planning staff, and a 3-2 vote in favor of the amendment by the city planning commission.
The court suit also contends the city’s formal reasons for denying the amendment are misinformed. Those formal reasons, outlined in a June 13 letter from the city’s development review manager, include a failure to create green space, reduction of open space and recreation areas, unsafe parking spaces and the replacement of upscale condominium homes with small rental units.
The suit contends that none of those criticisms is actually valid.
Several citizens who spoke at the June 9 hearing objected to its lack of ground-floor retail, and expressed concern about the building being geared toward renters rather than owners. The court suit also questions the validity of those concerns.
“Denial of a zoning request based upon alleged differences in the character of individuals who rent rather than own property appears to border on violation of constitutional protections,” the suit states.
While the formal summary of the council’s decision does not mention lack of ground-floor retail as a reason for rejecting the amendment, Gallo said the desire for retail and commercial on the bottom floor of River Song is “at the bottom of this whole story.”
He said the success of the new Tarpon Pointe Grill, a new waterfront restaurant located east of downtown, illustrates why the council is taking a stance in support of ground-floor commercial and retail at River Song.
“That’s what people are looking for,” he said. “I’ve been saying that for 15 years, and I’ll be saying it until the good Lord takes me home. We need restaurants and we need pubs. We have a river that is a diamond in the rough, and people are going to come to those places because they are attracted to the river.”
In a separate but related action, Bradenton Riverfront Partners also has filed a land-use challenge to the city’s River Song decision. Ed Vogler, who represents the partnership, said that when the council voted against the River Song amendment, it also voted against other changes in the master plan for the 8 acres surrounding River Song.
He emphasized that Bradenton Riverfront Partners’ goal is not to reverse the council’s River Song decision, but to obtain approval for the other changes in the master plan.
Those changes include moving a proposed hotel, reducing office space throughout the master plan, and integrating more arts-related uses into the plan, including live-work lofts.