Back to the drawing board: Initial plans for raceway warehouses ‘dead’

When the Palm Beach County Zoning Commission denied a series of variances to allow Portman Industrial to build warehouses at Palm Beach International Raceway, they blocked the developer from moving on to the next step.

For the proposed builders of 2.1 million square feet of warehouse space on the site of Palm Beach International Raceway, it’s back to the drawing board.

Portman Industrial has asked to postpone its April 28 hearing before the Palm Beach County Commission for five months, until Sept. 22. 

And Portman will have to redraw its plans, says one seasoned land-use lawyer who watched April 7 as the Palm Beach County Zoning Commission unanimously rejected the warehouse builder’s requests for several variances.

“The County Commission can’t do anything about variances,” said the lawyer, Marty Perry, who is not affiliated with any of the parties involved in the project. “Once the Zoning Commission rejected them, that project was dead. Without those variances, that site plan doesn’t work. Now they’ve got to go back to the drawing board.”

While Portman’s local representatives would not comment, Palm Beach County Zoning Director Lisa Amara confirmed Perry’s assessment.

Warehouse plan on site of Palm Beach International Raceway on the Beeline Highway west of Seminole Pratt Whitney Road.

Portman, which contracted to buy the 174.3-acre former Moroso Motorsports site in August, has two options, she explained. Their representatives can come back on Sept. 22 to the County Commission with no variances, meaning they have to rejigger their proposal to allow for buffers and other requirements they initially argued don’t apply to them. 

Or, if they still want variances, they can submit a revised plan to be heard for a second time by the Zoning Commission before Sept. 22. To do that, the submission would have to arrive soon, she said.

But bottom line, “the BCC (Board of County Commissioners) cannot approve the variances that were denied by ZC (Zoning Commission),” Amara wrote in an email.

Track still set to close April 23

Palm Beach International Raceway
Cletus McFarland, owner of the Freedom Factory racetrack, formerly DeSoto Speedway near Bradenton, posted a picture of Palm Beach International Raceway bleachers on March 10, saying they were moving to his track. (Facebook)

The Zoning Commission denial came after race enthusiasts packed the chamber to oppose the project. The local race community, which would have to drive hundreds of miles to find a similar track, were preparing to pack the chambers again for the April 28 County Commission meeting.

Despite the setback, the track built in 1964, still proclaims April 23 to be its last day. A track owner in Bradenton, Cletus McFarland, has posted on social media a photo indicating that he bought the track’s bleachers.

“I truly think that is what they’re hoping is all of us will figure out other places to race or they’ll sell their cars,” track supporter Jennifer Davis said. “I think that’s what they’re counting on is that a lot of that momentum will be lost.”

Seller ‘in the driver’s seat’

The delay, however, doesn’t mean Portman Industrial, a spinoff from Atlanta-based construction giant Portman Holdings, is going anywhere. 

An Aug. 9 memo filed in public records says the track’s owner, IRG Sports and Entertainment, cannot “solicit or accept other offers for the sale of all or any part of the property.” Nothing in public records indicates that agreement has been terminated.

It’s not unusual for developers to pay sellers to extend a contract option, especially with demand high and supply of industrial land low, said north county commercial real estate broker Rebel Cook.

Industrial land could be going for as much as $1 million an acre, which would be about $174 million, or as low as $600,000 an acre, about $105 million, Cook said. The price to let the buyer extend the exclusive option could be high, she said. 

“The seller is literally in the driver’s seat,” Cook said.

Given that the contract was signed last year, the going price for raw land in Palm Beach County could have been closer to $400,000 per acre, or about $70 million, said broker Neil Merin of Merin Hunter Codman Commercial Real Estate Services.

But that doesn’t mean groups wanting to retain racing would be next in line. Industrial developers are desperate to find buildable warehouse land, Cook said. They’re getting top dollar from desperate warehouse users. A 1 million-square-foot Amazon warehouse opened last year in the neighboring Palm Beach Park of Commerce.

While the seller can’t entertain offers under the agreement, she said, “that doesn’t mean the phone stops ringing.”

Variances focused on buffering preserves

Palm Beach International Raceway is surrounded by wetland preserves at Beeline Highway west of Seminole Pratt Whitney Road.

Portman requested the delay on April 18, invoking its right under county rules but only if the county zoning staff agreed to extend its original 180-day deadline, which would have been reached on May 30. Zoning agreed to an extension through Sept. 27.

Portman’s 10 requested variances mostly focused on eliminating buffers and rights of way to adjoining properties at the track on the Beeline Highway west of Seminole Pratt Whitney Road because the adjoining properties are all part of the county-owned 6,651-acre Pine Glades Natural Area.

Portman had to check off seven points to be granted each variance. Among the points: “Literal interpretation and enforcement of the terms and provisions of this code would deprive the applicant of rights commonly enjoyed by other parcels of land in the same district, and would work an unnecessary and undue hardship.”

In explaining why Portman met that point to drop a road connection, county zoning staff said: “To construct a roadway for cross connectivity would potentially have negative impacts on the surrounding environmentally sensitive lands and would work an unnecessary hardship on the applicant for a protected, undeveloped area,” the staff report said.

But the nine-member Zoning Commission would have none of it

Palm Beach International Raceway
Racers await their turn on the drag strip April 1 at Palm Beach International Raceway. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

With members recalling fond memories of the track, Commissioner Sam Caliendo agreed with opponents who said racers would take to the streets if the track closes. He recalled racing at the track as a young man. 

“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.”

When it came to voting, staff asked the commissioners which of the 10 variances they wished to deny. 

Commissioner Mark Beatty, who first voiced opposition to the plan, answered: “I’m for denying all of it. Let’s simplify this and kill it.” 

They then voted unanimously to do just that.

An earlier version of this story initially cited the price per acre suggested by Rebel Cook incorrectly.

© 2022 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.

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Panel taps brakes on Palm Beach racetrack-warehouse conversion

Author: Joel Engelhardt

Joel Engelhardt is an award-winning newspaper reporter and editor based in Palm Beach Gardens. He spent more than 40 years in the newspaper business, including 28 years at The Palm Beach Post. As a reporter, he covered countywide growth, the 2000 election and the birth of Cityplace in West Palm Beach. As an editor, he oversaw probes into the opioid scourge, private prisons, police-involved shootings and more. For seven years, he worked on the paper’s editorial board. Joel left The Post in December 2020. He and his wife, Donna, have lived together in Palm Beach Gardens since 1992.

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