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Duo dealt another loss in Lutz rezoning case

By BILL COATS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 2000


TAMPA -- Six years of litigation over a thwarted shopping mall in Lutz may finally be over.

A recent federal court ruling continued an unbroken string of legal defeats for ranchers Peter and Nick Geraci, who own about 500 acres at the northeast corner of N Dale Mabry Highway and Van Dyke Road.

The decision by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a judge's dismissal of a Geraci lawsuit. It is the only suit still alive among five legal actions the Geracis took against Hillsborough County.

The news means the Geracis have little hope of planning more than 650,000 square feet of stores on their property. For more than a decade, they have lobbied for at least 1.2-million square feet, the size of a regional mall.

"It was a good win for the county," Assistant County Attorney Ray Allen told county commissioners Tuesday.

It was also quick and terse. The two-page decision was issued Friday, 10 days after a three-judge panel heard arguments in Atlanta.

Fred Zinober, the Clearwater attorney who argued the Geracis' case, said they may request a rehearing.

The Geracis no longer envision a mall on the property, but they still want development entitlements on the land, which remains a pasture, zoned for agriculture.

County commissioners initially designated the property for a regional mall in 1989. Environmentalists appealed to state growth-management authorities and simultaneously began gaining local political support.

By 1994, the Geracis' efforts to rezone the land were rejected. They filed a variety of administrative and court appeals.

Hillsborough County initially feared the assault.

So attorneys negotiated a settlement allowing a 1.28-million-square-foot mall that commissioners tentatively approved. Before a final vote was taken in 1997, the Geracis demanded at least $15-million in damages as well. That torpedoed the settlement, reviving the court cases.

Allen explained to commissioners Tuesday that over the years, case law changed in the county's favor in civil rights cases like the Geracis'.

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Bill Coats can be reached at 226-3469 or coats@sptimes.com.

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