The Coastal Star

Boca Raton: Opponents want hearing officer to review Wildflower ordinance

By Steve Plunkett

    The group that wants to invalidate an ordinance reserving city-owned land on the Intracoastal Waterway for public uses has withdrawn its lawsuit but has not dropped its complaint.
     ForBoca.org Inc., which is led by former Chamber of Commerce chief Mike Arts, will seek a decision from an administrative law judge, or hearing officer, instead of a circuit judge.
     “We definitely are pursuing the case, but we’re pursuing it administratively as opposed to through the court for technical reasons,” said Gerald Richman, the group’s West Palm Beach attorney.
     The ForBoca.org lawsuit Richman filed in January said Boca Raton’s new ordinance limits the use of city land on the Intracoastal — and the Wildflower property in particular — in a way that is “wholly and patently inconsistent” with the city’s comprehensive plan. The filing postponed a planned discussion by the City Council on how to implement the ordinance.
     Boca Raton filed a motion to dismiss the suit in February, arguing in part that a challenge to the ordinance’s validity should be heard by an administrative law judge rather than in circuit court.
     Richman said the administrative route was “clear.”
     “We feel good about our chances for success on that,” he said.
     Richman’s motion to withdraw the lawsuit was made March 21 “without prejudice,” which means ForBoca.org can refile its complaint in the future.
     Arts headed the Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce for two decades and was on the City Council from 2006 to 2009. Tallahassee lawyer Mark Herron is also a ForBoca.org director.
     ForBoca.org’s third director, former City Council member Al Travasos, said in late March he resigned his position after seeing the lawsuit and was trying to get his name dissociated from the group.
     Boca Raton bought the 2.3-acre Wildflower parcel, at the northwest corner of the Palmetto Park Road 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. Fences now enclose the property.
     A citizen-launched petition drive posed the ordinance as a referendum question on the November ballot. It won by a 2-1 margin.
The council in July changed the land-use designation and zoning of the northern part of the site to allow business. The southern portion was already zoned business.
     The former Wildflower nightclub got special permission to put a parking lot on the then-residential portion, which would not be allowed today.

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