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    $222,609 awarded in parking lawsuit

    The suit claimed that Clearwater had unfairly transferred a 25-space lot.

    By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

    © St. Petersburg Times, published January 12, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- A jury ruled Thursday that the city should pay $222,609 to two downtown property owners, compensating them for losing the use of a parking lot Clearwater gave away without following required legal procedure.

    The dispute was sparked in 1997, when city officials decided to transfer a 25-space parking lot off Park Street to the owners of the Atrium office plaza to settle a lawsuit over parking issues.

    But the city did not first declare the land surplus and hold a hearing on that, as required by the city charter.

    Two longtime downtown property owners, whose clients depended on the 25-space lot that was transferred to the Atrium, sued over the issue. They said their small shops, restaurants and offices had been harmed by the city's actions.

    The family of the late Doug Brown, which owns the Brown Brothers Building downtown, was awarded $31,000 Thursday to make up for lost rent due to the loss of the nearby public parking lot.

    John Homer, proprietor of the Saltwater Fly Fisherman next door on the 600 block of Cleveland Street, was awarded $191,609.

    The verdict was just as important as the money, said the two downtown property owners' attorney, Margot Pequignot.

    "It was really a moral victory to my clients," Pequignot said. "This has been something that was really burdensome to them. And I'm sorry Mr. Brown wasn't here to see it, because I think he would have been really pleased."

    The damages awarded Thursday were less than the $1-million-plus that the downtown property owners had sought.

    The city could try to cap the payment to Homer at $100,000, a state limit for the liability of municipalities -- or have the awards set aside altogether, said Assistant City Attorney Richard Hull. There is a motion pending on those issues before the case can be closed in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court, Hull said.

    Hull argued during the trial that although the city made a mistake in the real estate transaction with the Atrium, there were at least two public meetings on the deal that transferred the city parking lot to Atrium at Clearwater Ltd.

    Hull also argued that other public parking in the area served the two properties, and the businessmen had not actually been harmed by the loss of the city lot just behind their storefronts.

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