Thanks to an insurance policy, the taxpayers of Redington Shores do not have to fork over $800,000 to the owner of the now-demolished Redington Long Pier.
The payment, which is nonetheless being made on behalf of the town, marks the end of a federal court battle between the town’s officials and the pier owner, Tony Antonious.
At issue were code enforcement actions by town officials who say they were concerned about public safety issues at the pier and that Antonious says were “malicious”, abusive, and even evidence of “racketeering.”
In the end, Antonious got some of what he wanted: a monetary settlement, even though it is substantially less than the $45 million he originally sought.
And the town got some of what it wanted — an end to the lawsuit and no official admission of wrongdoing in its code enforcement against the pier.
Citing other ongoing litigation relating to the pier, Mayor MaryBeth Henderson declined to comment.
The court settlement specifically states that none of the parties to the dispute admit any legal wrongdoing and that the settlement was reached primarily to avoid “the substantial costs, inconvenience and uncertainties of litigation.”
As a result, the lawsuit, originally filed by Antonious in 2019 in Pinellas County Circuit Court and later moved to federal court, was dismissed “with prejudice,” which means it can never be litigated again. The only exceptions are potential future claims relating to a pending land use appeal and protections under state law relating to government actions that damage property values.
Town Clerk Mary Palmer said since the town’s insurance company was paying for the lawsuit costs, the town had no choice in accepting the settlement agreement.
“The insurance company said the lawsuit could go on for years. Some of the commissioners did not really want to settle,” Palmer said this week.
As for Antonious, he says he is happy the lawsuit is over, even though legal fees took more than two-thirds of the settlement. He said he looks forward to working with the town to redevelop his property.
“Finally, there is life at the end of the tunnel. I just hope there will be peace from this time on,” Antonious said.
Antonious views the recent settlement as the town’s admission of years of harassment, discrimination, and racketeering as defined by the federal RICO statutes.
“If nonsense starts again, I will go back to court,” he warned.
Town citations against the pier for code violations began in 2014. At one point, $250-a-day fines added up to some $225,000. Antonious sued and won on appeal. The fines were erased.
But by 2017, severe damage caused by Hurricane Irma forced Antonious to close most of the pier. A year later, both the county and state declared the pier a public hazard.
In 2019, prompted by complaints of broken nail-studded pier parts floating in the Gulf and onto the beach, Pinellas County sought an injunction to force Antonious to fix or remove the pier.
In May 2020, the state demolished the pier.
Development of a legal battle
For tourists and regularly returning fishing enthusiasts to the mile-long beachfront community of Redington Shores, their trip was not complete without lugging their fishing poles, equipment, and ice chests filled with beer to the historic pier in hopes of catching a tasty red snapper.
Others enjoyed sunning on benches scattered throughout the pier to watch pelicans, herons, and seagulls resting on pier railings and pilings between foraging flights over the waters surrounding the pier.
Or, as this writer did more than a decade ago, many ventured in the dark of night to the end of the pier to gaze at the Hale-Bopp comet’s splash of light over the Gulf of Mexico — which was not to return for more than 2,500 years.
That is all gone now. What is left of the 1,200-foot-long pier is a narrow, empty parking lot at 17490 Gulf Blvd., squeezed between two multi-story condominiums and ending at the water’s edge with only a stub of the original wooden boardwalk over the sand.
Last year, the state completed demolishing the Redington Pier after citing the structure for safety issues. The pier was the last of a half-dozen wooden fishing piers built in mid-Pinellas County by developers. Now, the only choices for pier fishing and walks out over the Gulf of Mexico are miles to the north or south.
For town officials and many residents, particularly those living directly on the Gulf of Mexico, many memories of the pier involve frustration over nail-studded broken planks shedding off the pier after every storm.
Antonious purchased the pier in 2000 for $1.13 million, saying at the time that he wanted to “save” it for the town. Later, acknowledging that he had underestimated the costs of maintenance and repair, he suggested the town should buy it.
When the town’s effort to get a state grant to cover the purchase failed, in 2005 then-town mayor J.J. Beyrouti tried to get Pinellas County to buy the pier. That, too, failed when Antonious rejected a $2.8 million offer.
“If I could go back, I would give it to them for what they offered. It would have saved a lot of headaches,” Antonious said.
After the pier was demolished, Pinellas County reduced both its market and taxable value to about $535,000, less than half what Antonious paid for it. Nonetheless, the 2021 tax bill for the three-quarter-acre upland parking lot is more than $8,600, just $1,700 less than when the pier was still standing.
What will happen now to the narrow 0.78-acre parking lot remains uncertain, as the current zoning allows only recreation-related activities on the land.
Under the current outdoor recreation and public open space land use category any development is restricted to public beach, public parks and public accesses; public parking, fishing piers and marinas; miniature golf courses; tennis, shuffleboard and swimming clubs; and accessory uses and structures related to these permitted uses.
Over the years, Antonious has repeatedly failed in his efforts to get town approval to rezone the 100-foot-wide parcel for development of either a hotel or condominium. A lawsuit appealing the town’s rejection of his most recent rezoning effort is currently being litigated in Pinellas County Court.
Then there is an outstanding $1.15 million foreclosure lawsuit filed against Antonious in 2018 by the pier property mortgage holder. An attempt to mediate the dispute failed in September. Now, a hearing on a motion for summary judgment filed by Antonious’ lawyer against Gulf State Investment Portfolio I, LLC is scheduled for Nov. 16, a month before a non-jury trial set for Dec. 14 and 15.
Antonious has also tried to sell the property, most recently for over $5 million. Several potential buyers, including real estate investors Ben Mallah and Tony Utegaard, wanted to build a hotel on the property, but backed off when it could not be rezoned.
Now, Antonious says the property is off the market until he and the town can agree on what it can be used for.
“A hotel would be more profitable, but there are condominiums on either side of us, so that is what we are trying for,” he said.
Most recently, the town rejected a proposal for a 10-unit condominium.
The lack of a site plan and building drawings is what led the town to reject his application, even though the town’s zoning consultant was going to recommend approval, according to Palmer.
“Any peaceful solution will be welcome,” said Antonious. “I want the property developed for the good of the town and the taxpayers.”