Friday, May 24, 2024

Midtown Settlement? And Lauzier Gets Rave Reviews

Boca Raton and Crocker Partners are talking about a settlement of the Midtown lawsuit.

No one is saying so on the record. There’s no way to tell if the talks will lead to a settlement or make the legal fight worse. Two events, however, show that something is happening for now.

Crocker actually has filed two lawsuits. One seeks $137 million in damages for the city’s alleged failure to write redevelopment rules for Midtown, the area roughly between Town Center Mall and Boca Center. The other asks a judge to compel the city to write the regulations.

On Tuesday, the city council met in executive session—public excluded—on the second lawsuit. The agenda said the scheduled two-hour discussion would cover “settlement” and other issues.

On Wednesday, lawyers for Crocker and the city had been scheduled for a hearing before Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Jeffrey Gillen on the same lawsuit. Gillen had ordered Boca Raton to show cause why the city shouldn’t do what Crocker asked. That hearing was “postponed,” said Henry Handler, who represents Crocker.

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

As of last week, Crocker and the city had been set for the hearing. Boca Raton had filed an answer brief to the complaint. Crocker was scheduled to file its response.

In one way, Boca Raton faces a similar legal problem to what the council caused last July when it rejected the Concierge senior living center. Council members Monica Mayotte, Andrea O’Rourke and Mayor Scott Singer didn’t make a strong case for overriding the staff recommendation of approval. Mayotte and O’Rourke further hurt the city’s position by making what the developer and landowner characterized as discriminatory comments about older people.

The city just settled that lawsuit by approving a slightly modified project. That approval headed off what could have been a lawsuit from the property owner seeking damages like those Crocker wants.

Settling one Midtown lawsuit also could make the $137 million claim go away. The Midtown case, however, is more complicated and problematic.

Midtown isn’t about a single project. Neither Crocker nor any other landowner had proposed one. Crocker wanted the city to follow its own rules. Boca Raton had designated Midtown for Planned Mobility Development in 2010, and thus obligated the city to write regulations that would govern redevelopment under that designation.

Beginning in 2015, Crocker’s managing partner, Angelo Bianco, had led what he called a “consortium” of Midtown landowners in working with the city to create “an interactive village” that would include housing. Residential isn’t allowed in Midtown because development rules still date to when the land was in the county. Boca Raton annexed it in 2003.

The prospect was exciting and could have led to what Bianco estimated at a $1 billion combined investment in Midtown over 10 years. Landowners would have paid for design and street improvements. The Restaurant Row, which Crocker has proposed at the Plaza office tower—I wrote about that Tuesday—is part of that “village.”

Last January, however, the city council voted not to set those regulations. (More about that meeting in a moment.) The council asked Development Services Director Brandon Schaad to create a “small area plan” for Midtown. Crocker considered that to be another stall tactic and sued. A second landowner filed a similar lawsuit.

As part of its defense, the city likely would seek to legitimize the council’s decision 11 months ago. That could explain why City Attorney Diana Grub Frieser last month asked the council to approve an ordinance that hadn’t been on the agenda. It stated that the “limited planning exercise”—another new term—on Midtown had concluded and “seeks to ensure that the purposes, scope and effect of the planning exercise are not misunderstood or misrepresented. . .”

This “exercise” took nearly a year. The city hired a consultant. Yet the result of this “exercise,” which the city presented last week, was a few slides with labels like “guiding principles” and a proposed ordinance. There was no plan. There was no discussion of residential.

Taxpayers must hope that the city’s attorneys—starting with Frieser—take seriously the need for a settlement. Losing the Midtown opportunity would be bad enough. Losing in court and forcing the public to pay for the council’s mistake would be worse.

Looking back

Now let’s revisit the meeting that sparked the lawsuits over Midtown. If the city has to settle Crocker’s lawsuit, that meeting will be the reason. If the case goes to trial and the city loses, that meeting will be the reason.

So much was different last January. Susan Haynie was still mayor. Robert Weinroth was still on the council. BocaWatch was still operating and had been urging the council to go slow on Midtown or reject the Crocker plan outright. Elections loomed in March.

On the agenda were the ordinances to govern Midtown redevelopment. Things went sideways from the start.

Councilman Jeremy Rodgers said, “I’m not ready” to vote. Crocker’s Bianco proposed a two-week postponement. Haynie suggested a delay until March, so the landowners and staff could work out final details on such issues as the number of residential units and building height. Bianco said agreement was “close.”

Councilwoman O’Rourke, however, kept pushing for a “master plan” of Midtown and made a motion to require it. Bianco pointed out that the city had not required such a plan in any other Planned Mobility Development area. The city, Bianco said, “has made it up as we go along. Just tell us the rules. I’ll do the rest.” Plans for individual projects, Bianco said, would remain subject to normal city review.

As discussion kept sticking on the “master plan,” O’Rourke said, “OK, I will change ‘master plan’ to ‘small area plan.’ “

“I don’t know what that means,” Bianco said. Neither did the council members. “I will Google that tonight,” O’Rourke said. Brandon Schaad, the city’s chief planner, would say in essence that it meant whatever the council decided it would mean. City Attorney Frieser said it meant what “your planning director” said it would mean. Rodgers said, “We’re creating a definition of a term I haven’t heard of before.”

Yet O’Rourke’s motion passed, 4-1. Joining O’Rourke were Rodgers, Scott Singer and Weinroth. Monica Mayotte has succeeded Weinroth. She spoke in favor of the motion. Andy Thomson didn’t join the council until September. He didn’t speak at the January hearing.

After the vote for the “small area plan,” Singer said, “Now where do we go?” Well, to court. What happened last January was terrible local government.

Thumbs up for Lauzier

Delray Beach City Manager is in very good standing with a majority of the city commission.

Lauzier has been on the job about 13 months. His contract called for an evaluation last May. The elections two months earlier had produced three new commissioners. Even holdovers Shelly Petrolia—who became mayor—and Shirley Johnson had worked with Lauzier only a short time.

There was no public discussion of Lauzier’s performance. But Commissioners Bill Bathurst, Ryan Boylston and Adam Frankel—all the new members—submitted written evaluations at the time.

The form includes 10 categories, among them supervision and leadership, execution of policy, community relations and financial management. Scores in each category range from one to five, with five being the highest. A five means that Lauzier “substantially exceeds” the commission’s expectations.” A four means that he “generally exceeds’ expectations.

Bathurst gave Lauzier fives in eight categories. The exceptions were planning and economic development, for which Lauzier got fours.

Bathurst acknowledged that he had not witnessed any interaction between Lauzier and developers. He did note, “We need to get ahead of planning and development.” Bathurst is most impressed by Lauzier’s budget acumen, praising him for bringing “efficiencies” and his “firm grasp of the financial side of the city.”

Boylston gave Lauzier seven fours and threes in the other categories. A three means that the manager “meets” the commission’s expectations. The lower scores came in community relations, economic development and planning. Boylston made no written comments.

Frankel served six years previously on the council, half of that under longtime manager David Harden. Frankel gave Lauzier fives in each category. “I have been very impressed with Mr. Lauzier,” Frankel wrote. “He has made great efforts to involve himself in the community and has taken a very progressive approach to his role.”

Boylston told me that he would like the commission to create a better evaluation tool. The form is generic, referring to “council” rather than commission.

Public discussion also would help. The Boca Raton City Council hasn’t held a formal evaluation of City Manager Leif Ahnell or City Attorney Diana Grub Frieser in years. The manager and the attorney are the only employees the council hires. That’s also true in Delray Beach, where the commission also hires an internal auditor.

From my perspective, Lauzier’s performance shows that he was the right hire. Given the importance of the job, however, such informal evaluations don’t seem to be good for the city or for Lauzier.

Costello up next in May

Next May is also when the Delray Beach Community Redevelopment Agency plans to evaluate Executive Director Jeff Costello. The focus will be on the agency’s ability to complete projects rather than have them linger.

So at this week’s CRA workshop meeting Costello updated the board on the agency’s new project manager and noted that the board has authorized the use of project management consultants. Something similar happened during the go-go real estate days when Boca Raton hired temps to keep up with the demand for building permits.

Board members seemed satisfied. They stressed again, however, that they want things to move faster.

Move to streamline applications

Speaking of city managers, the Boca Raton Planning and Zoning Board tonight will discuss a helpful change to the downtown development ordinance.

The proposal would allow the city manager, who also serves as director of the community redevelopment agency, to approve applications for new projects or renovations of 5,000 square feet or less. Such applications wouldn’t need city council/CRA approval, so the change would streamline the application process.

Call this the Ice Cream Shop Rule. Last year, a man wanted to open a high-end ice cream shop. The process took so long that he gave up on Boca Raton and decided to open near the coming iPic theater in Delray Beach. I would expect the planning and zoning board and then the CRA/council to approve this sensible change.

New golf sponsor

Boca Raton’s pro golf tour has a new sponsor.

Oasis Outsourcing signed a three-year deal for the PGA Champions Tour event that takes place every year Broken Sound’s Old Course. The contract takes effect with the February event.

Allianz ended its sponsorship after the 2017 tournament. The city spent $500,000 on last year’s event to bridge the gap, with the city council stressing that the money was for one year only. Oasis is based in West Palm Beach and has locations throughout the country. The company began in 1996 as an offshoot of Wackenhut.

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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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