The conversion of a beloved local raceway to warehouses is back on track after the property owners eliminated a major hurdle that forced them to make an unscheduled pit stop in April.
The owners of the shuttered Palm Beach International Raceway west of Jupiter are moving forward on their own, without construction giant Portman Industrial, which pitched a 2.1 million-square-foot warehouse development before angry racing fans packed a meeting April 7 to block it.
Also gone are the seven variances that Portman sought so that its warehouse plans wouldn’t clash with neighboring wetland preserves. The county quietly helped with that effort in May when it removed road right of ways in the Pine Glades Natural Area, which had sparked Portman’s need for several of the variances.
After nearly 60 years, racing stopped at the former Moroso Motorsports track on April 23. Just two weeks before that, the county Zoning Commission, sensitive to objections raised by race fans, rejected seven variances needed for the warehouse development, stopping it from moving to its final review before the Palm Beach County Commission.
Portman Industrial, then heading the project, promised to submit new plans by September, but the construction giant’s contract to buy the land expired at the end of June and property owner IRG Sports and Entertainment moved forward without them.
Under its new plan submitted Sept. 26, IRG doesn’t have to go back before the advisory Zoning Commission. They have a Jan. 11 hearing date before the County Commission.
They’re asking the commission to let them abandon zoning rights that allowed spectators to view races at the now abandoned 2.2-mile track and quarter-mile drag strip on the Beeline Highway west of Seminole Pratt Whitney Road.
They propose instead four warehouses covering 2.1 million square feet on 174 acres. The warehouses are allowed in the existing industrial zoning but the owners want to abandon the 2009 development order for the racetrack. They also submitted a reconfigured site plan and proposed changing the name to Palm Beach Industrial but the layout of the warehouses remains the same.
The owners are listed as Palm Beach International Raceway LLC and Moroso Investment Partners II LLC, both listing Lou Partenza as CEO. Partenza, a former Florida Panthers hockey executive, has been IRG chief executive and president since 2017 and is listed as holding a greater than 5 percent stake personally in the property.
A lending arm of the New York financial firm Sixth Street also is listed in county zoning documents as an owner with a stake greater than 5 percent.
Another company listed as a 5 percent owner is IRGSE Holding Corp., which lists Partenza and Craig Hamrah as officers. Hamrah is a vice president with Sixth Street Specialty Lending out of Dallas.
The Palm Beach International Raceway closure came as IRG put in place deals to sell its other three tracks: in Memphis, Tenn.; Cordova, Ill.; and Mechanicsville, Md.
Owners threatened legal action
To get to this point, the owners, now represented by the West Palm Beach-based Lewis Longman and Walker law firm, threatened to challenge the Zoning Commission’s decision.
“The owner believes the denials of the variance were not made in good faith, or in accordance with the requirements of the law,” Lewis Longman wrote in its Sept. 26 submittal to the county. “The Zoning Commission’s review of the matter did not appear to take into consideration the evidence before them and was instead made at the behest of certain parties that would prefer the racetrack remain open.
“As a result of the failure to follow the requirements of the law, on May 6, 2022, the owners filed a petition with the county requesting relief under the Florida Land Use and Environmental Dispute Resolution Act (FLUEDRA).”
The Zoning Commission voted 9-0 on April 7 to reject all seven variance requests. Members focused their disapproval on traffic concerns, a proposal to retain half the existing trees and the variances, which would have eliminated access and buffers into the neighboring wetland preserve owned by Palm Beach County.
However, IRG didn’t pursue the challenge; instead, its representatives met with county staff to discuss alternatives.
“Based upon these discussions,” Lewis Longman wrote, the “owner has agreed at the county’s request to stay the FLUEDRA process in an effort to seek resolution of the issues through the typical zoning channels.”
Road designation dates to 1962
That’s when the county took action to remove what the developer called “certain antiquated plats” that showed road rights-of-way in the neighboring Pine Glades Natural Area.
The county has owned the right of way, which borders the racetrack on three sides, since 1962, when the land was envisioned as an industrial area. The county doesn’t need the property to build a road since over 20 years it has assembled the surrounding lands into the Pine Glades preserve.
On May 26, one county commissioner, Maria Sachs, who represents south county, pressed for an answer as to whether the redesignation of what she called “a paper roadway” would help the racetrack owner’s warehouse proposal.
The change benefits the natural areas by adding 13 acres to the 6,689-acre Pine Glades preserve and removing the option of ever converting those 13 acres into a road, Environmental Resources Management Director Deborah Drum told Sachs.
But no staff member told Sachs what impact it would have on the racetrack rezoning and, after a moment of confusion, Sachs withdrew the question and joined the unanimous vote in favor.
Developer offers 8-foot buffer
Lewis Longman wrote that the move eliminated the need “for a right-of-way buffer and extensive screening.” IRG has agreed to provide a minimum eight-foot buffer, as required by county code, along the northern, eastern and western boundaries with Pine Glades.
As a result, IRG no longer needs the variances denied by the Zoning Commission.
Building A: 131,039 square feet of warehouse and 14,560 square feet of office.
Building B: 217,371 square feet of warehouse and 24,000 square feet of office.
Building D: 884,323 square feet of warehouse and 25,000 square feet of office.
Building C would be part of a second phase by 2025 consisting of a 786,343-square-foot warehouse with 25,000 square feet of office.
To justify the project, the proposal cites the lack of available warehouse space at the neighboring Palm Beach Park of Commerce, which last year added a 1 million-square-foot Amazon warehouse. It also points to the pandemic-driven shift to online buying, which has spurred demand for sites to build large warehouses not easily found in Palm Beach County.
Real estate experts say industrial land in Palm Beach County could be selling for anywhere between $500,000 to $1 million an acre, which would put the land’s value once the zoning is approved at $87 million to $174 million.
Meanwhile, the track, stripped of its grandstands and scoreboards, sits unused. Another group said it would announce ambitious plans to build a racetrack complex on 900 acres in Martin County but cancelled a June news conference and never rescheduled.
© 2022 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.