Negotiations to resolve a city-county dispute over at least $1.7 million in developer fees have failed, resulting in Palm Beach County suing Palm Beach Gardens Tuesday.
In its broadest form, the suit seeks to resolve a disagreement over county power. At issue is whether cities can collect money from new developments to resolve vexing local transportation issues without passing along fees to the county for regional road work.
After a year of talks and the failure of last-minute, high-level brokering efforts by County Commissioner Maria Marino, the county filed a complaint and a motion for an injunction Tuesday in Palm Beach County Circuit Court.
The county wants the court to block a 2019 city law that lets it charge new developments a “mobility fee,” basically taking money that otherwise would flow to the county as a “road impact fee.”
The decision is likely to be far-reaching since other cities are interested in tapping local developer fees but are letting the Gardens-county dispute play out first.
For decades, developers paid road impact fees to the county, which used the money to maintain and expand roads in the region. The city says the mobility fee allows it to find solutions beyond road-widening, such as pedestrian and bicycle connections or even trains.
But the county says the city has “unilaterally repealed” county ordinances needed to plan for road improvements and tap developer fees to pay for them.
The county accuses the city of withholding $1.7 million in road impact fees since January 2020 and keeping the county from getting critical information about the impact new development would have on county roads.
“County roads,” one heading in the suit says, “are the county’s responsibility, not Gardens’ concern.”
Palm Beach Gardens had not yet received the suit Tuesday and therefore has not filed any counter to the county’s arguments.
Clash at March 9 meeting
At one point, the county sent letters to developers telling them the county would slap liens on their properties for failing to pay. The move brought a roar of disapproval from the business community, which said developers don’t deserve to be caught between the two feuding governments.
In a March 9 appearance before the county commission, City Attorney Max Lohman told commissioners that a state law gave the city the power to enact its mobility fee and it looked forward to its day in court.
“Let the courts decide,” Lohman said. “That’s how it works.”
County commissioners supported a lawsuit but gave the warring parties a few weeks to reach a settlement but none came back.
Instead, Marino brought County Administrator Verdenia Baker and City Manager Ron Ferris together. After they had an April 30 session, the county temporarily postponed plans to file the suit.
None of the three would discuss the talks and what prompted the county’s momentary delay. Marino, a former Gardens council member, said the two sides just “were not on the same page.”
“So, this is where someone who is removed from the situation looks at the case and renders a decision, based on what one would hope, is the most accurate interpretation of the law,” Marino said Tuesday.
In the interim, the city threatened May 6 to sue the county over the county’s refusal to allow a stoplight on Northlake Boulevard at Bay Hill Estates and over a records request that City Attorney Max Lohman said the county had “slow roll(ed).”
The county fulfilled the records request a day later and wrote a letter last week agreeing to allow the stoplight under four conditions. Gardens has not yet responded.
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