A long-simmering city-county feud spilled into the business community Tuesday as Palm Beach County commissioners weighed a proposal to slap liens on Palm Beach Gardens developers for failing to pay fees they say they’ve already paid.
At issue is continued growth, business representatives said. If developers following city rules are punished by the county, they’ll go elsewhere.
“This will create a black eye for us,” said Michele Jacobs, president and chief executive of the influential business group, the Economic Council of Palm Beach County.
While Palm Beach Gardens is at the forefront of this fight that absorbed about two hours of Tuesday’s county commission meeting, commissioners said other cities are watching closely to see if they too can tap the lucrative fees on construction projects.
Aiming to tailor development fees to pay for bike lanes, transit and sidewalks, as well as roads, the Palm Beach Gardens City Council voted in September 2019 to enact a mobility fee. The hitch came when the city decided that a new state law let them charge developers and stop passing road impact fees to the county.
The county, which has been allowed to collect impact fees since 1980, says the city is free to collect a mobility fee but someone still has to pay the county fee.
In January 2020, that stopped in Palm Beach Gardens.
By the county’s count, it’s short $1.5 million through November 2020. The Gardens’ payments, about $5,000 for a new 1,500-square-foot house and more for commercial projects, go to projects in a north county zone that includes Jupiter.
Efforts to talk it out have failed.
So the county sent letters to Gardens developers demanding payment and threatening to slap a lien on their property. That could threaten project financing.
“Don’t put developers and the private owner in the middle of this,” Jacobs said. “The county has no basis to levy a lien. Standard practice is to pay the city and the city pays the county. Developers have paid the money to the Gardens. It makes no sense to drag the developers into this dispute.”
“We’d like to stay out of this,” said Brian Seymour, a lawyer representing the owners of Gardens Downtown, which is in the middle of a reconstruction project that Seymour said accounts for about half the payments in question.
Gardens isn’t backing down
While county commissioners showed a willingness to fight the Gardens over who gets the money, they backed off of going after developers, voting unanimously to give staff a month to come back with a different approach.
The county would like the city to put the money in escrow until a court can decide who is right. Gardens City Attorney R. Max Lohman said that’s not necessary because if a court orders the city to pay the money, the city will pay.
He expressed assurance, though, that the city would win.
“The statute empowered a mobility fee. There was no carve out for charter counties. It’s a state law. It prevails over the county charter.”
He characterized the county’s position during mediation as “our way or the highway.”
At least four county commissioners, including Mayor Dave Kerner and Vice Mayor Robert Weinroth, did little to disguise their distaste for the city’s position.
Weinroth told Lohman “You sound so dug in. I’m not sure there’s any middle ground here.”
While suggesting the county hold off on the liens, Commissioner Melissa McKinlay slammed the city.
“I find it a little frustrating that Palm Beach Gardens would take the position that they’re the good guy on this and want to do a mobility fee. The majority of workers come in to the Gardens. A golf cart path is really not going to be sufficient transportation for them. Nor is a shaded sidewalk. That kind of transportation is only going to benefit a very few people.”
Kerner suggested the city simply start paying the county to remove the threat to developers: “You have the power to get the business community out of this. Send the money to the county.”
Lohman replied: “That’s not going to happen.”
Kerner suggested the lien issue wouldn’t go away without concessions from the Gardens.
“The business community is very influential and they may be influential with your members of the city council if we pass this today,” he told Lohman. “It may be the catalyst we need.”
The issue also catches County Commissioner Maria Marino in the middle. She voted in favor of the mobility plan as a Gardens council member before joining the county commission in November.
She asked commissioners to give her six months to work with a sampling of other cities considering a mobility fee. In voting to reconsider in a month, commissioners rejected her approach.
But she made it clear she would not vote to slap liens on developers.
“I would prefer to resolve this with the Gardens, not with the developers,” Marino said. “I don’t believe we should be liening anybody who has paid all their fees in good faith.”
Copyright © 2021 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.