By Brenna R. Kelly
The Cincinnati Enquirer
FLORENCE - An attorney and developer claims that Florence City Council members were biased and violated his due process rights when they denied his request for a zone change last month.
Dennis Helmer, who wanted to build an office building on U.S. 42 at Dilcrest Drive, has appealed the city's decision to Boone Circuit Court.
In the lawsuit, Helmer claims at least two city council members had made up their minds before the March 16 vote, that the city made unreasonable demands and ignored the recommendation of the Boone County Planning Commission.
The lawsuit asks that the zone change be allowed and seeks monetary damages.
Helmer has been trying to develop the 0.8-acre site for 10 years. He wanted to build a 6,000-square-foot building for a doctor's office, but needed the property's zoning changed from residential to commercial.
In January, the Boone County Planning Commission recommended the zone change.
The site is at the entrance to Dilcrest Manor, one of Florence's oldest subdivisions, where residents said the building and its entrance on Dilcrest Drive would make it harder for them to drive in and out of the subdivision.
The subdivision is home to two city council members, Melodee Merrell and Dale Stephens.
Both voted against the zone change.
In his lawsuit, Helmer claims that Merrell talked to residents about the vote.
After the vote she told Helmer, "As long as I am involved, you will never have anything there," the lawsuit states.
The night of the vote, Stephens brought prepared findings of fact for denial of the project before the city voted.
Council denied the zone change 4-1 with, Councilman Mel Carroll, who lived in Dilcrest for 14 years, the lone dissenter.
The city also said the change was denied because the project needed a frontage road to Sycamore Drive, a condition Helmer said was unreasonable.
"Quite frankly, the conditions that the city put on me," he said. "It's impossible. I don't have the power to condemn property to build a road through to Sycamore Drive."
Helmer said Thursday that he thinks his lawsuit will be successful.
"The alternative is cheap housing since it is zoned for housing," he said. "I don't think that's the best thing for the neighborhood."
Florence Mayor Diane Whalen said she had not seen the lawsuit Thursday.
"I don't think anyone would be surprised at all that a suit was filed," she said.
Last year, the Kentucky Court of Appeals reversed a Boone County zoning decision citing the alleged bias of two county commissioners.
In that case, the developer Hilltop Basic Resources, claimed that the commissioners had prejudged the issue because they expressed opinions about it to residents before the vote.
Boone Fiscal Court has appealed the case to the Kentucky Supreme Court, which has not decided yet if it will hear the case.
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