Thursday, May 23, 2024

Boca Loses Big in Lawsuit & Delray’s Golf Course Vote Delayed

A federal judge has slapped down Boca Raton over the city’s denial of a permit for an oceanfront house.

Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Rodney Smith didn’t just rule against the city in the lawsuit over the vacant lot at 2500 North Ocean Boulevard. Smith said the city was institutionally and illegally biased against Natural Lands, LLC, which wanted to build a four-story, 8,600-square foot house.

First, some quick history:

In 2015, the city council gave Natural Lands a variance to put such a large structure on a lot that is roughly one-third of an acre. Natural Lands, though, also needed a state permit to show that the building wouldn’t damage the coastal environment.

The state granted the permit. In 2019, however, the council overruled the state. Mayor Scott Singer and council members said they relied on recommendations from staff and consultants.

Natural Lands first sued in state court. A panel of circuit court judges ruled that council members Monica Mayotte and Andrea O’Rourke should have recused themselves in 2019 because of prejudicial comments before the vote. A panel of appeals court judges agreed and called for a new vote with Mayotte and O’Rourke recusing themselves.

Natural Lands also sued in federal court, alleging that the permit denial amounted to an illegal “taking” that depressed the value of the property, which Natural Lands bought for $950,000. Natural Lands repeated the allegations against Mayotte and O’Rourke and extended them to Mayor Scott Singer. Natural Lands further alleged that discussions about the project had happened outside of the Sunshine Law.

Smith agreed with all those allegations. He called Singer “clearly biased by any stretch of the imagination.” During his deposition, Smith said, “Singer looked at us like a deer in headlamps who was a person, a trained lawyer, that he never heard of the word ‘fair’ before.”

Yet Singer, Smith added, “stood on the plaintiff’s property, said there’s no way that this property will ever be built. We’re going to keep it that way.”

O’Rourke, Smith said, “epitomizes what is delusional when asked if she can be fair and unbiased. O’Rourke “walked in here and took the stand and literally feigned ignorance, or was in denial of where she had multiple communications with individuals that violated not only the city’s codes but the Sunshine Law as well and try to claim ignorance. . .”

Like O’Rourke, Smith said, Mayotte “displayed complete bias from the start. She stated she’s a rule follower, but except following her own rules when it comes to the code.

“She violated the code in many respects, perhaps even the Sunshine Law, and she wanted to feign ignorance that she did not know it until it was explored on direct examination,” meaning questioning from Natural Lands’ attorneys.

Smith did not rule that the city’s action amounted to inverse condemnation—government taking land for a public use. But as Alan Kipnis, who represents Natural Lands, said, Smith ruled that the owner “has the right to build the house.”

Kipnis said, “We thought (the house) was a political problem for Boca Raton.” Indeed, when it seemed as though residences might go there and on the lot at 2600 North Ocean, a public outcry against oceanfront redevelopment followed. Comments by Singer, O’Rourke and Mayotte in response to that outcry led to the lawsuits. 

The Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District commissioned appraisals of both sites with the idea of possibly buying them. The appraisal valued 2500 North Ocean at about $5 million if it was “buildable.” The district never made an offer. Boca Raton offered to pay Natural Lands its sale price in exchange for the land. Natural Lands refused.

Smith didn’t stop with elected officials. He criticized City Manager Leif Ahnell, Deputy City Manager George Brown and everyone involved in the process, including members of the Environmental Advisory Board and those consultants, for what he clearly believed had been collusion.

“Anyone who had any participation, directly or indirectly,” Smith said, “shall recuse themselves moving forward.”

“I have great respect for the citizens of Boca Raton,” Kipnis said. “I understand that a lot of people don’t want this house built.” His client may build something smaller.

But Smith’s ruling, Kipnis said, shows that his clients rights were “blatantly violated,” and the fight cost Natural Lands $1 million. Boca Raton could appeal. As Kipnis notes, however, the city would begin with “this horrible ruling” that also requires Boca Raton to pay Natural Lands’ legal fees. Though it’s one judge, it’s a stunning and sweeping condemnation of the city.

Delray golf course vote delayed

delray beach golf club
Delray Beach Golf Club

Delray Beach may yet choose a team to renovate the city’s golf course and, in return, develop part of it. But that didn’t happen Tuesday.

The city commission failed to agree on one of the four bidders. Then a proposal to table the decision failed. At that point, the city was about to ditch more than a year of work and about $100,000 paid to a consultant that brokered the course.

Then Adam Frankel asked for a new vote and switched. The issue will come back at a workshop meeting after two new commissioners, who take office today, have time to familiarize themselves with the proposal for a public-private partnership, known as a P3. The only dissenter was Shirley Johnson, who is term-limited and wanted to decide. Otherwise, she said, the course will look no better in 10 years.

Thirteen months ago, the commission agreed unanimously that such a partnership was the only hope to find the roughly $15 million needed to renovate the course. Petrolia noted Tuesday that there’s hardly any grass left. It was rare, shared sentiment on a commission split into two factions.

The new dynamic arises because Commissioner Ryan Boylston, once the P3 champion, now is cautious. That caution could stem from his likely decision to run for mayor next year and public resistance to developing the course.

Despite what happened Tuesday, it’s unlikely that the commission will change its collective mind and decide to spend money on the course. If the P3 falls apart, Delray Beach will need another option for what everyone calls a city asset.

Delray’s new water plant will adhere to EPA PFA standards

Photo by Steve Johnson from Pexels

I wrote recently about the looming Environmental Protection Agency requirement that cities all but eliminate polyfluoroalkyl chemicals—PFAs—from drinking water because of their health risk.

Rob Long, who becomes a Delray Beach commissioner today, three years ago raised the issue of PFAs levels in the city’s water. The levels did not exceed state standards, but those standards were weak.

A city spokeswoman confirmed that the new water plant will adhere to the new EPA standard. City officials hope that the plant will open by 2026. Until then, Long said, “Residents who want to make their water safer can use point-of-entry or point-of-use filters with activated carbon or reverse osmosis membranes, which have been shown to be effective at removing PFAs from water.”

FAU will have to pay big to retain Coach May

Photo by Alex Dolce

Florida Atlantic University’s remarkable run to college basketball’s Final Four will come down to the numbers.

As in:

The university almost certainly will have to pony up to retain Coach Dusty May, if it’s even possible. He has led the Owls to five straight winning seasons, capped this year by a 35-3 record and four wins in March Madness. Before this year, FAU had not won a single game in the tournament.

May makes about $550,000 a year. Openings at schools in the so-called Power 5 conferences could pay May four times as much. FAU, the Palm Beach Post reported, hopes to offer May a deal with long-term incentives.

The other set of numbers is fundraising. Ample evidence shows that sports success can drive up donations. Coincidentally, FAU in December began the first phase of a planned $600 million fundraising campaign. According to a news release, the campaign’s priorities are “FAU Health, the environment and scholarship/student success.”

FAU’s search for a new president

FAU also is looking for a new president. On Wednesday, the South Florida Sun Sentinel quoted State Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, as saying that he is “under consideration.”

Fine is one of the Legislature’s most vocal right-wing members. During a dispute over a mask requirement for students, Fine referred to a member of the Brevard County School Board as “that whore.”

University officials responded that the search is in its early stages. As I wrote, though, it’s likely that the search committee will choose one finalist after no public discussion.

That isn’t what happened when FAU’s board chose John Kelly from among finalists in 2014. Last year, however, the Legislature exempted university searches from the state’s open-records law. Secrecy ruled the choice of Ben Sasse to lead the University of Florida. There’s no reason to believe that it will be any different with Kelly’s successor.

Changing of the guard

Joining the Delray Beach City Commission with Long at today’s 4 p.m. organizational meeting will be Angela Burns. Long defeated incumbent Juli Casale. Burns beat Angie Gray to succeed the term-limited Johnson.

Commissioners also will choose a vice mayor and deputy vice mayor. They will pick a chairman of the community redevelopment agency board to run the meetings.

Boca Raton holds its organizational meeting at 10:30 a.m. Friday. Singer will be sworn in for his second and final three-year term. Council members Fran Nachlas and Mark Wigder will be sworn in for the first terms. Like their counterparts in Delray Beach, they will choose a CRA chairman.

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Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.

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