By Steve Plunkett
A group led by a former Chamber of Commerce president wants a judge to overturn Boca Raton’s new ordinance reserving city-owned land along the Intracoastal Waterway for public uses only.
ForBoca.org Inc., which in a lawsuit said it is committed “to social welfare and protecting private property rights,” claims the ordinance limits the use of such city land — and the Wildflower property in particular — in a way that is “wholly and patently inconsistent” with Boca Raton’s comprehensive plan.
The group also says the ordinance violates a state law that prohibits using an initiative or referendum process to change zoning.
The litigation stopped in its tracks a City Council discussion of the ordinance planned for Jan. 9.
“I was informed … we got served [notice of the lawsuit] regarding this issue so I suggest that maybe we delay this discussion until you’ve had an opportunity to talk to your legal counsel,” City Manager Leif Ahnell said.
The next day City Attorney Diana Grub Frieser asked council members to talk about what legal strategy they wanted her to take in an executive session closed to the public on Jan. 17.
“The essence of the lawsuit is to challenge that ordinance, to say that that ordinance ... procedurally was not a proper subject for an initiative,” Frieser said.
ForBoca.org was created in March and is headed by Mike Arts, who led the Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce for two decades and sat on the City Council from 2006 to 2009.
“We will strive to promote real solutions that keep our community prosperous and appealing,” Arts says on the not-for-profit group’s website.
The group’s address is the Tallahassee office of lawyer Mark Herron, who is also listed as a ForBoca.org director. Herron successfully represented City Council member Robert Weinroth and Deputy City Manager George Brown last year in an ethics complaint about their appointments to the Airport Authority Board. The city paid Herron’s $10,000 legal bill.
ForBoca.org’s other director is former City Council member Al Travasos.
The city bought the 2.3-acre Wildflower parcel, on Palmetto Park Road at the northwest corner of the bridge over the Intracoastal, for $7.5 million in 2009. It had been negotiating for several years with the Hillstone Restaurant Group to put a restaurant there along with a waterside walkway open to the public.
A citizen-launched petition drive to overrule the plan gathered over 1,700 valid signatures, far more than the 1,030 required, and put the referendum question on the November ballot. It won by a 2-1 margin.
James Hendrey, who chaired the initiative effort, called the ForBoca.org lawsuit “ridiculous.”
“I’m totally amazed,” said Hendrey, who with his wife, Nancy, hired an attorney to review the pertinent case law and forward his findings to Frieser.
“We aren’t sure that the City Council, which tells the city attorney what to do, will represent the will of the people,” Hendrey said.
The council in July changed the land-use designation of the northern part of the site from residential to commercial and rezoned it from single-family residential to local business district. The southern portion was already zoned local business.
The former Wildflower nightclub got special permission to put a parking lot on the then-residential portion, something that would not be allowed today, city officials said.
The city has not removed fences surrounding the property.