New Midtown Lawsuit Offers Conspiracy Theory

midtown
Crocker Partners portrait of Midtown

In previous lawsuits, Crocker Partners has alleged that Boca Raton wrongly refused to write redevelopment rules for Midtown, where Crocker owns several properties. In a new lawsuit, Crocker offers its version of how what the company calls “stonewalling” happened.

The litigation accuses “two or more” unnamed city council members of holding three “secret” meetings with each other and then instructing top administrators to block any recommendation for residential development at Midtown. These actions, the lawsuit states, violated the Sunshine Law requirement for open meetings.

According to the lawsuit, the first secret meeting came last May. Four months earlier, the council again refused to approve those rules and instead had told Development Services Director Brandon Schaad to prepare a “small area plan” for Midtown. Such a term did not exist in planning industry lexicon.

Schaad hired a consultant to help craft the plan. In May, the city held a public forum—known as a charrette—to get input. There was support for housing at Midtown, but low or medium density, not high. Current rules prohibit residential development. Whether to allow housing, and how much, had been among the primary issues between Midtown landowners like Crocker and the city.

Schaad prepared a memorandum for the council on the findings from the charrette. On July 18, however, Deputy City Manager George Brown emailed Schaad to say that Brown would be “rewriting” the memorandum after “I get my instructions and do it.” Brown’s action surprised Schaad, who complained about “being in the dark.”

According to the lawsuit, that first secret meeting in May involved communication with City Manager Leif Ahnell, City Attorney Diana Frieser or someone else acting as an “intermediary” who told Brown to rewrite the memorandum and downplay residential.

The second secret meeting, the lawsuit alleges, took place before the Nov. 14 meeting at which the council considered a resolution that pronounced the successful conclusion of the “limited planning exercise” for Midtown. Frieser added the item at the last minute.

The resolution sought to “ensure that the purposes, scope and effect of the planning exercise are not misunderstood or misrepresented.” It clearly was Frieser’s attempt to legitimize the “small area plan.” The next day, Schaad ended the contract with the consultant, who at an August workshop meeting had favored housing for Midtown, saying that it would reduce traffic.

According to the lawsuit, that second secret meeting led to the resolution and the third led to an ordinance the council adopted in January. It supposedly codified the results of the “small area plan.” The ordinance does not call for any residential development in Midtown.

Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke

Though the litigation does not name council members, you can assume that one is Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke. She proposed the “small area plan.” She is the council member Crocker will depose before seeking to question any others. Only O’Rourke, Scott Singer and Jeremy Rodgers remain from the council that approved the “small area plan.” Councilwoman Monica Mayotte was elected last March. Councilman Andy Thomson didn’t join the council until September.

Crocker Partner Managing Partner Angelo Bianco said the city acted “in bad faith to frustrate” the decision in 2010 to designate Midtown for Planned Mobility Development. Such a designation doesn’t work unless it provides for housing. Bianco notes that the final ordinance “actually took away” permitted uses for Midtown. 

It’s an unusual lawsuit, but much about Midtown has been unusual. Since Crocker seeks $137 million in damages through a separate lawsuit, however, the allegations are serious. If true, they amount to conspiracy that could cost Boca Raton dearly.

And another

If the latest Midtown lawsuit was something of a surprise, another against Boca Raton was predictable.

It comes from developers who wanted to build a four-story duplex on the beach at 2600 N. Ocean Blvd. The project requires a variance because the structure would be east of the Coastal Construction Control Line. The city council unanimously rejected the variance in February.

The developers want the state court to overturn the council’s decision. A similar lawsuit successfully challenged the council’s approval in 2015 of Chabad East Boca on Palmetto Park Road near the beach.

According to the lawsuit, the council never intended to give 2600 North Ocean LLC a fair hearing. The developers’ attorneys cite statements last year by council members Monica Mayotte and Andrea O’Rourke. Mayotte told constituents that she had “no intention” of allowing the variance. O’Rourke said she was “not in favor.” While running for mayor last summer, Scott Singer taped a campaign video opposing the project.

As the developers see it, the city rejected the application to force 2600 North Ocean to lower its asking price. In 2015, during debate over development at the oceanfront lot to the south, then-Mayor Susan Haynie wondered whether the public should buy any remaining vacant oceanfront lots. Beach protection has been a priority in Boca Raton since the mid-1970s, when the city and the beach taxing district—now the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District—bought up miles of beachfront. At the time, however, officials considered the prices too high.

Their lawyers, though, claim that the developers would be happy to sell – for the appraised price of $7.2 million. But appraisers based that number on the project getting the variance.

The developers claim that they received inadequate time to present their case to the Environmental Advisory Board and the council. Their attorneys also dispute the city’s contention that the project didn’t meet the six conditions for receiving a variance. Rather than harm turtle nesting, they say, the duplex would enhance it.

Attorney Robert Sweetapple teed up this lawsuit during the council hearing—which 2600 North Ocean calls “a pre-conditioned sham.” One potential snag for the plaintiffs is that the lawsuit refers often to the city’s appraisal. In fact, the beach and park district commissioned the appraisal and also showed no interest in buying.

Whatever happens, Boca Raton continues to bring steady business to the city’s outside lawyers.

The Downtowner is back!

Downtowner/Facebook

The Delray Beach Community Redevelopment Agency has chosen the same company to provide both forms of downtown transportation.

Fittingly, the company is Downtowner. It will get a two-year contract for the fixed-route system, which will be similar to the former trolley service. Downtowner will get a one-year contract for point-to-point service—picking up riders and dropping them off, like Uber.

According to a staff memo, the annual cost for Downtowner’s fixed-route system will be $437,000. CRA Executive Director Jeff Costello said the cost of the Uber-style service would be determined during negotiations with Downtowner. So will the start dates. The current fixed-route program expires on April 30.

City Commissioner Ryan Boylston said Downtowner offered several “little things,” such as a driver’s app and the possibility of electric vehicles. The point-to-point program will be a test project. Boylston wonders if it justifies the public expense, since he believes that the typical user is much more affluent than riders of the other route. It primarily serves people getting to work.

In addition, Boylston notes that both routes extend outside the CRA boundaries, yet the CRA will pay all the costs. That could become a problem if the Legislature changes the rules on what CRAs can pay for.

Review of BH3

(Rendering by BH3)

Costello and the attorney for BH3 said Monday that things remain on track for CRA review next Tuesday of a contract for the company to acquire the roughly nine acres east of the Fairfield Inn and build a project designed to redevelop West Atlantic Avenue.

After Monday’s phone meeting, Schiller said “a couple of business terms” remain under discussion. Costello said the CRA board would decide on them. “It’s still positive,” Costello said of the talks.

Cold case solved

Even the most talented police investigators will acknowledge that sometimes they need luck. Delray Beach got some.

The police department announced last week that a fingerprint match had solved a 21-year-old murder. Todd Barket, who lives near Tampa, had applied for a job that required fingerprinting. Barket’s prints matched those from Lu Shay’s Consignment Shop, where the murder occurred. His DNA also was a match. Prosecutors have charged Barker with first-degree murder for killing Sondra Better, the 68-year-old woman who worked there.

Better had been beaten and stabbed. A blood trail led to the cash register, so investigators suspected that robbery was the motive. A woman who had been at the store earlier identified a man who matched Barket’s description at the time. This cold case now appears to be all but closed. Barker has a hearing on April 30.

Lane closings

Construction on I-95 (Courtesy of FDOT)

I reported last week on the project to widen Interstate 95 and add toll lanes through Broward County to Linton Boulevard in Delray Beach. Here are this week’s lane closings related to that project.

Two lanes on Palmetto Park Road in each direction will be closed starting at 9 p.m. and ending at 5:30 a.m. One lane each way will be closed from 9:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. One lane on Camino Real in each direction will be closed between 9:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. Drivers can expect ramp closures and disruptions all week.

Social media now reports that Boca Raton residents who live near I-95 are feeling vibrations from all the heavy work. Remember, it all comes from the folks at the Florida Department of Transportation and the continuing effort to turn the interstate into a revenue stream.

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