After what the City Council refers to as suffering from its own success, Boca’s residents are left to deal with the school overcrowding and traffic from the effects of 10 years of a growing population and higher density. Rezoning the Midtown area to include high rise apartments needed to be done in light of how things are in 2019, instead of 2010 when the Planned Mobility District was designated for the area. Midtown landowners however, claimed that they were treated unfairly and sued. Led by Crocker Partners, they claimed their development rights were taken away. Rights that the Fifteenth Circuit Court of Palm Beach County have ruled they never had in the first place. That’s good news for the 1000’s of residents living in the area that already face devastating traffic without an additional 2,500, 1,200 or whatever units they were talking for Midtown?
In many respects we are lucky to have Crocker Partners and others willing to invest in Boca, but my concerns and those of others arose when they refused to show a detailed Master Plan. Residents wanted to be assured that a second Tri-Rail would be “built and operational” before granting the right to build residential units.
Have the developers been unfairly treated as they claim? Possibly, but not by this administration. In 2003 they annexed the Midtown area. In 2010, they adopted the goal of Planned Mobility Districts (aka Transit Oriented Development, in urban planning parlance). Then they made it part of the City’s Comprehensive Plan. By December 2012, Ordinance 5225 described what PMDs should look like.
But in 2014, the Midtown developers bought various parcels in the Midtown area. As the Midtown developers would tell it, they made the land purchases with a “reasonable expectation” they would be able to build 20 units per acre or up to 1,274 units. In plain language, their term ‘reasonable expectation’ is what the rest of us would call ‘buyer’s risk’. It appears City leaders serving from 2014 to 2017 did not discourage Crocker from envisioning building the most units possible which could result in a maximum number of units of 2,500.
When the ordinance for rezoning Midtown was being considered in 2018, times had changed. City staff and council felt Midtown was too important for business as usual. Midtown needed a better plan. City staff recommended 600 units contingent upon a Tri-Rail station being “built and operational” before the residential units were approved. Further, the City recommended that a “Master Plan” (later renamed “Small Area Plan”) which included infrastructure needs and necessary traffic and pedestrian considerations, especially for Military Trail. That’s good development practice. So, in early 2018, the City began its work on a plan for the Midtown area based on existing zoning which did not include residential.
That was not enough for the Midtown developers, so on May 22, 2018, they sued. In effect the lawsuit claimed council didn’t move fast enough granting residential zoning changes. The judge ruled otherwise.
The City in their defense documents, stated that several times in the PMD ordinance the word “MAY” is used. It does not use the word “SHALL”. Therefore, the city is not obligated to rezone the area for residential. The City also claimed that a “small area plan” is not a “rule” or ordinance which was applied by the city which “inordinately burdened” the landowners. The judge agreed.
On July 18, 2019, the judge granted the City’s motion to dismiss. He decided on 3 principles.
- The plaintiff failed to present their claim to the city in writing prior to filing suit.
- The Bert Harris Act didn’t apply since the City didn’t “inordinately burden” their property rights.
- The City did not take an action that burdened an existing use of their property rights. That is, Crocker and Associates and other landowners didn’t have a vested right to residential.
Crocker and Associates are respected developers of Boca Center and Mizner Park. For whatever reason, they seem to feel zoning changes would occur by the 2014 city council. They did not, and as in all speculative real estate there is risk.
Now is the time for common sense to be the guiding force of Boca’s growth. Will 2,500 or 1,274 units make sense for Midtown? Not likely, but in my opinion, 670 units on 67 acres does. Add a restaurant row, outdoor seating, biking paths, walking paths with shade trees and benches, retail, plenty of parking and you get a showcase “City Center” worthy of the name “Midtown”. Shaping that vision is the domain of both our elected leaders and landowners. Not just one or the other. Let’s work together.