By Thomas R. Collins
A bill in Tallahassee is causing buzz again about a topic that can make even the most laid-back seaside residents here grow tense: Briny Breezes development.
The consideration of the bill by state lawmakers has conjured the not-too-distant memories of two years ago, when a developer’s bid to buy the 43-acre mobile-home town — and make the 1,000 residents millionaires — spawned dreams of new lives, criticism from neighbors and eventually lost hopes when the deal died.
The Senate bill, SB 360, would allow the biggest developments in Palm Beach County and the other largest counties in the state to remain free of review by state planners. It would also abolish the need for roads to keep up with new development in those counties, a concept called traffic concurrency.
The bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Mike Bennett, an electrical contractor from Bradenton, made it through all three of its committees with almost no opposition — two votes were unanimous and the third was 14-3. A companion House bill has not yet been considered.
Terry Brown, a commissioner in Ocean Ridge, which borders Briny Breezes, said he’s worried that the bill would make it easier for development of the small town to sail through.
“You don’t just throw away concurrency and common sense,” Brown said. “That’s the thing that’s a concern. You can’t just squash on your neighbors to develop.”
Briny Breezes Mayor Roger Bennett said he was aware of the bill, but town officials had no role in trying to get the legislation approved.
“We haven’t done any lobbying,” he said. “We don’t have a lobbyist.” He said he didn’t know whether the town’s corporation, a separate board from the town officials, has had a role in the legislative process, but said “I don’t believe” it has.
Bennett said that even if state review of a Briny Breezes project were not required, that wouldn’t mean that it would get approved easily, because there would still be local critics.
“The local opposition would probably be much more restrictive than the state would be,” Bennett said. If it were to pass, the law would create a new development category called a “dense urban land area.” Any county with a population of at least a million people, such as Palm Beach County, would qualify.
Those counties would be designated a traffic concurrency exception area, leaving developers there free of the requirement that roads be built to accommodate the traffic caused by their projects.
Traditionally, large developments known as “developments of regional impact,” or DRIs, have to be reviewed by state planners because their character, size or location would have a “substantial effect” on the residents of more than one county.
But under SB 360, developments in “dense urban land areas” would be exempt from that state review.
Still, bills that would make daring changes to growth rules are an annual rite in Tallahassee but frequently die, and the fate of this one is far from certain.
Robert Ganger — president of the Florida Coalition for Preservation, which opposed the last proposal for development of Briny Breezes — has voiced concern that the bill could mean easier passage of development there.
In 2007, 80 percent of Briny Breezes residents voted to sell their land to Ocean Land Investments for $510 million, or about $1 million per lot, making way for 12, 20-story towers with 900 condos, plus 300 time shares and a 300-room hotel.
The plan fell through after opposition mounted. An Ocean Land executive said a critical review by state planners was the “trip-wire event” that led to the implosion of the deal.
Ocean Ridge Commissioner Brown said such a project is still unfit for a “low-density seaside, village-type area.”
“It would impact the human environment and it would impact the natural environment tremendously,” he said. Paul Sullivan, president of the Briny Breezes corporate board, said he wasn't familiar with the proposed legislation and that no one with the corporation has anything to do with it.
“I’m very interested in taking a look at it,” he said.
He said that discussions with potential developers have cooled.
“There’s been no contact with any type of developer since early last summer,” he said.
Still, Bennett said development proposals are bound to keep coming.
“This is such a lucrative spot of real estate here,” he said. “We will undoubtedly continue to have offers.”