Boca vs. Crocker Midtown Update and Other Issues of News and Note

One of the major property owners of Midtown, Crocker Partners, wants to make Boca Center into a food destination. (Photo by Aaron Bristol)

 

 

Boca Raton’s lawyers will be in court today seeking a dismissal of Crocker Partners’ lawsuit against the city.

The company sued after the city council in January refused to set redevelopment rules for Midtown, the roughly 300 acres that include Town Center Mall and stretch east to Boca Center. Fifteen years ago, the city annexed the land from the county, which had prohibited residential development.

In 2010, however, the city council designated Midtown as a Planned Mobility Development district, one of five in Boca Raton. That designated presumed housing, tied to public transit. The four major landowners—with Crocker taking the lead—began negotiating with the city over the number of housing units, building height and construction of streets and sidewalks.

On at least two occasions, council members told the landowners that a deal was near. At that key moment seven months ago, however, the council backed off. At the urging of Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke, council members voted to have the staff create a “small area master plan” for Midtown covering what the area should look like. The term had not existed until then. City planners already have missed their prediction of having the document ready by July.

Crocker, whose founder developed Mizner Park, then filed two lawsuits. One seeks $137 million in damages from lost profits. What had been a comprehensive remake of Midtown is down to 80 acres, with individual landowners considering their own plans. This one asks Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Howard Coates to void the council’s action in January and for the city to approve the redevelopment rules.

Details of the case will interest only land-use lawyers, but the city’s argument for dismissal focuses on one main point and several others.

Crocker and the other landowners contend that state law required Boca Raton to set Midtown redevelopment rules one year after approving the Planned Mobility Development designation. The city claims that there is no such deadline. Indeed, City Attorney Diana Grub Frieser made that argument during the January council meeting.

The city further argues that because the issue involves land development regulations, only the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) could challenge the refusal to approve the rules. Gov. Rick Scott created the DEO, which absorbed the Department of Community Affairs, the state’s land-planning agency.

Finally, the city argues that even if Crocker had a case, the company is too late. The statute of limitations expired four years after the PMD designation.

If the $137 million claim was the bad-cop lawsuit, this is the good-cop lawsuit. Boca Raton, however, isn’t backing down.

And more on the Crocker lawsuit

There’s one especially interesting aspect of the Crocker lawsuit.

The company seeks to depose city council members and administrators who have dealt with Midtown. That’s predictable. Also predictable is the city’s resistance to those depositions. Judge Coates stayed any decision on the depositions until he rules on the city’s motion to dismiss.

In addition, however, Crocker’s lawyers seek to depose BocaWatch Publisher Al Zucaro—who’s running for mayor on Aug. 28—Frank Chapman and Blake MacDiarmid. Chapman, an attorney and Boca Raton resident, helped Zucaro spread information last year about former Mayor Susan Haynie’s possible ethics issues. I’m told that MacDiarmid also has been a Zucaro ally.

BocaWatch and Zucaro regularly criticized Crocker’s plan for Midtown and urged residents to oppose it. If Coates allows the lawsuit to move forward, the depositions of Zucaro, Chapman and MacDiarmid could be as interesting as those of the council members.

Postponements

Midtown Boca rendering

At the July 23 city council workshop, Boca Raton planners were supposed to present an update on public comment regarding Midtown. Because the council spent so much time earlier rejecting a downtown adult congregate living facility, however, that item got postponed.

The council also delayed a discussion on streamlining approvals for some downtown projects. The city has been on summer schedule; the next meetings aren’t until the week of August 20. The special election is Aug. 28.

Those delays have created a bigger backlog. Then the new council will have to hold its organizational meeting. It’s going to be a hectic fall.

Amendment 1

As they prepare their 2018-19 budgets, local governments in Florida prepare for the expected approval of Amendment 1 on the November ballot. It would have a big impact on cities’ and counties’ 2019-20 budgets.

The proposal would add $25,000 to the homestead exemption for all taxes except those for schools. Amendments need 60 percent to pass, but it’s hard to imagine this one falling short. The previous $25,000 expansion in 2006 got 76 percent.

Delray Beach City Manager Mark Lauzier estimates that the expansion would cost the city between $1.3 million and $1.4 million. Unless city commissioners chose to cut services, they could find it very hard to keep their pledge of cutting a sliver off the tax rate every year for a decade.

The estimated loss in Boca Raton is $1.7 million to $1.8 million. That could come as City Manager Leif Ahnell has warned about the rising cost of fire-rescue services.

Former Boca Raton City Councilman Robert Weinroth, who is running for county commission, said the extra $25,000 would cost county government’s general fund about $28 million. The operating budget is slightly more than $1 billion.

In an email, Weinroth also noted the potential ripple effect of another tax-related amendment. Question 2 would make permanent the 10 percent cap in annual property value assessments for non-homesteaded properties—apartments, commercial buildings and second homes.

If voters reject that amendment, as Weinroth believes they will, it would shift more “property tax burden” to non-homeowners. This shift began with the 1992 Save Our Homes amendment, which limited annual increases in value for homeowners to 3 percent.

And there’s more.

Weinroth points out that the legislature, which put Question 1 on the ballot, has promised to help “financially constrained counties” if it passes. Those counties—most of them rural and poor—either are at the legal taxing limit or close enough that they couldn’t raise the rate to cover the loss from Question 1.

The legislature thus might have to shift state money from counties like Palm Beach, delivering us a second hit. This year, the Legislature shifted $150 million in education money from large counties to small ones.

Weinroth’s war chest grows

Robert Weinroth

Speaking of Weinroth, his campaign for that District 4 county commission seat of term-limited Steven Abrams keeps rolling when it comes to money.

In July, Weinroth brought in another $30,000, bringing his total to about $159,000. He got $1,000 contributions from the major interest groups such as the Economic Council of Palm Beach County and the firefighters union.

Weinroth is a Democrat. The only Republican in the race, Boca Del Mar resident William Vale, raised no money in July. He has only about $6,600 overall. The county GOP failed to get a bigger-name candidate to keep the seat Republican. If Weinroth wins, north-county commissioner Hal Valeche will be the only Republican.

Deadline for Uptown/Equity

Friday is the deadline for Uptown/Equity to finalize a purchase agreement with the Delray Beach Community Redevelop Agency for the three blocks east of the Fairfield Inn. I will have an update next week.

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