Racing fans won the first lap Thursday in a much longer race when the Palm Beach County Zoning Commission voted 9-0 to reject plans for a warehouse complex that would replace their beloved Palm Beach International Raceway.
The panel’s recommendation of denial will go to the Palm Beach County Commission, which is scheduled April 28 to consider the proposal from Atlanta developer Portman Industrial for a 2.1 million-square-foot warehouse complex.
Calling track supporters “cautiously optimistic,” racer Jennifer Davis said, “Now we’ve just got to get it across the finish line.”
The 174-acre site, formerly known as Moroso Motorsports Park, has been a racetrack since 1964. It has the right, never acted upon, to build up to 400,000 square feet of commercial development.
While warehouses are permitted, commissioners focused their criticism on traffic concerns, a proposal to retain just half the existing trees and waivers that would eliminate access and buffers into the neighboring wetland preserve owned by Palm Beach County.
Portman said it would relocate 691 trees and add 556 to the site on the Beeline Highway west of Seminole Pratt Whitney Road.
Commissioners criticized Portman’s traffic study, saying they worried about having up to 400 tractor-trailers a day leaving the complex by turning left onto Beeline Highway, a fast, four-lane divided road.
“It only takes one of them to pull out at night (and cause an accident),” said Commissioner Mark Beatty.
They also wondered how warehouse traffic would affect the PGA Boulevard and Military Trail area, an intersection about 15 miles away, too far to have been considered in Portman’s traffic study.
After hearing from 26 speakers opposing the project, plus three including an owner’s representative in favor, commissioners made it clear they believed the harm to the community of eliminating the racetrack would be greater than the benefits of warehouse jobs and space.
Commissioner John Kern said he’s not a race fan but he recently attended the 12 hours of Sebring race.
“At Sebring, people talked about Palm Beach County. They talked about this racetrack,” Kern said. “It’s been there 58 years, if there’s anything we can do to preserve it, we should.”
Commissioner Sam Caliendo, echoing the fears of many speakers that racers would simply take to the streets if the track closes, recalled racing at the track as a child.
“I would have been on the streets doing it if we didn’t have that track,” Caliendo said. “I’m all for keeping this track if we can.”
Speakers told of third-generation family members driving or working on cars at the track, about plans to leave the area if the track went away and the need to take into account how racing benefits small businesses.
Jerry Pellegrino of North Palm Beach said he came for a winter motorcycle racing series at PBIR in 1984 and never moved back north. He owns nine motorcycles, one RV and two trailers.
“I spent $17,000 in two years on bikes at one shop in Jupiter,” he said. “It just doesn’t make sense. We can put a warehouse anywhere. Why would you take this track away?”
Speakers scoffed at Portman’s statement that the warehouses would bring 1,500 new permanent jobs paying an average of $54,000 a year.
“This track is worth more to the county than the warehouses,” said Joe Castello of Pembroke Pines. “Warehouse? It’s a lifeless shelter for products. This track? It’s an unpolished diamond that has been left to rot, treated as a real estate investment.”
Castello also read a letter supporting the track from paralyzed drag-racing legend Darrell Gwynn, who is expected to appear with another racing legend, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits at the track’s last scheduled day, April 23.
The track’s owner, IRG Sports and Entertainment, signed a contract in August to sell the site to Portman for an undisclosed price. After news came out that a second bidder wanted to keep the track intact, IRG filed a memo in public records saying the contract barred it from talking to any other bidders.
IRG also is selling or has sold its other three tracks in Maryland, Tennessee and Illinois.
A representative of the company addressed commissioners briefly to assure them that IRG intends to sell to Portman. Typically, contracts to buy land don’t become final until government approvals are in hand.
A representative of the Palm Beach North Chamber of Commerce, Kathleen Dempsey, said the group supported the project but when called back up by a commissioner to see if the chamber had studied the economic benefits that would be lost, said they had no such study and had not met with the opposition.
As a majority of commissioners said they would reject the proposal, Portman attorney Cliff Hertz asked the panel to postpone the matter to give Portman time to do a more detailed traffic study.
“All these people showed up here today. They did their job,” Beatty said. They shouldn’t be punished “because the applicant didn’t perform adequately.”
The board’s chairwoman, Marcelle Griffith Burke, conceded that IRG has the right to sell its property. But, in voting against the project, she said “I can’t bypass the impact I think this is going to have on the community.”
© 2022 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.