Boca Raton: Recusal order affirmed

‘Clear bias’ against beach home puts key figures off case

Related: Judge chides Singer, Mayotte and O’Rourke, says beach project didn’t get fair hearing

By Steve Plunkett

A year after verbally ordering Boca Raton to reconsider its 2019 denial of a permit to build a four-story home on the beach, a federal judge has put his decision in writing.

“It is hereby declared” that plaintiff Natural Lands LLC “has the right to build a single-family, detached dwelling” at 2500 N. Ocean Blvd., “subject to satisfying the city’s CCCL variance criteria,” U.S. District Judge Rodney Smith said in a written final judgment he handed down on March 22.

In addition, Smith said that Mayor Scott Singer’s “bias was clear” and he would have to recuse himself from any future decisions on whether to give Natural Lands a variance to the city’s Coastal Construction Control Line, which limits building east of State Road A1A.

Also ordered to recuse themselves were Council members Andrea O’Rourke and Monica Mayotte, who were similarly found to be unfairly biased. But both have been term-limited out of office, O’Rourke in March 2023 and Mayotte on April 1.

Smith also ordered a host of city officials to steer clear of any future CCCL application by Natural Lands, including City Manager George Brown, Department of Development Services Director Brandon Schaad and environmental engineering consultant Michael Jenkins.

“The city shall ensure that its review, analysis, and/or processing of plaintiff’s CCCL application shall be sanitized such that anyone who previously reviewed, analyzed, or evaluated plaintiff’s prior application shall recuse themselves from any future proceedings, as the court finds that they too were tainted, directly or indirectly,” Smith ruled in an associated document on March 7.

Boca Raton reopened its appeal of the case the same day. It had appealed Smith’s ruling shortly after he voiced his decision on the last day of the March 20-24, 2023, non-jury trial. But the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the city had to wait until Smith filed his written judgment.

Smith also gave the Natural Lands attorneys until May to file their legal bill, which he said the city would have to pay.

The Natural Lands legal team celebrated the judgment.

“We are thrilled that the court has entered a written order that fully codifies its oral decision without waiver,” attorney Keith Poliakoff said. “The property owner will continue in its quest to build a home on this property, with the weight of the court order advising the city that it must approve a home at this location.”

Poliakoff said the final judgment, if upheld on appeal, would require the city to pay his team more than $1 million in legal fees and costs. 

This was the second adverse court ruling in two months against the city and in favor of beachfront construction. A Palm Beach County circuit judge said on Feb. 1 that Boca Raton “unlawfully withheld and illegally delayed” turning over 42 public records that were prejudicial to the owner of 2600 N. Ocean Blvd., just north of the Natural Lands parcel. That landowner also has been trying to get a building permit for an oceanfront residence.

Robert Sweetapple, one of the lawyers for the 2600 landowner, Delray Beach-based Azure Development LLC, has said his side’s legal bill, also to be paid by the city, will top $1 million as well.

Neither figure includes what Boca Raton has paid its outside lawyers from the law firm Weiss Serota to litigate the cases.

Poliakoff said Natural Lands is working on an alternative design for 2500 N. Ocean to ensure compliance with new floodplain requirements.

“The property owner has always wanted this parcel developed as its winter retreat, so no current plan to sell has been contemplated,” he said.

The case stretches back to 2011 when the landowner first applied for a building permit.

In December 2015 the City Council caused a public outcry when it approved a zoning variance to allow something to be built at 2500 N. Ocean, an 88.5-foot-wide lot. City rules normally require lots at least 100 feet wide.

Natural Lands planned to build a 48-foot-tall, 8,666-square-foot single-family home at the site and obtained a Notice to Proceed from the state Department of Environmental Protection in October 2016.

But the council denied a city CCCL variance on July 23, 2019.

Before the trial, the city offered to pay Natural Lands the $950,000 it paid to buy the parcel if it would drop the case. The partnership declined.

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