Last May, Palm Beach County staff rushed to avoid a legal challenge over the zoning board vote that blocked warehouses at the former Palm Beach International Raceway site on Beeline Highway west of Jupiter.
Top county officials from multiple departments responded to urgent requests from county attorneys for speedy action to get a seemingly mundane item before county commissioners at their May 26 zoning meeting.
While appearing innocent, the action would clear the way for the conversion of the racetrack to a warehouse complex by removing a potential hurdle for the developer — an action staff never made public or clear to commissioners.
But more than 900 internal county emails, made public after a records request submitted and paid for by racing fan Jennifer Davis, reveal the untold story. Davis paid $187 for the emails — the county’s fee for producing, reviewing and redacting — and shared them with OnGardens.org.
The emails portray a county government doing one thing but telling public officials another.
They show how the county abandoned the rights of way to avoid a legal fight with the warehouse builder. By removing the rights of way, the county would remove the hurdle that had blocked the warehouse proposal.
To Davis, the emails spell a tale of deceit. So many residents oppose this move, the county’s furtive actions go against the purpose of local government, she said.
“Not informing the commissioners of the true reason for returning the land was underhanded,” Davis said. “The fact that they didn’t tell them tells me that they knew that this was an unpopular move with both the community and the commissioners.”
The county has not replied to questions about its decision to keep the information quiet. When asked, one attorney said he could not comment. Two others could not be reached. An assistant county administrator, on vacation, said Thursday he would prepare a response but none was forthcoming as of Monday morning.
The story’s final chapter is likely to be written Jan. 26, when the County Commission considers whether to allow 2.1 million square feet of warehouses at the former Moroso Motorsports track, a deal likely worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
The landowner made no secret of the motivation behind the change, saying in papers filed months later “this change was important for the subject property.” The reason: It eliminated the need for variances.
But they didn’t tell county commissioners that.
Said former Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, who voted for the seemingly innocuous action on May 26, it “seemed benign and an environmental benefit, so I supported it.”
A racetrack amid nature preserves
At issue was a staff proposal for the county to convert road rights of way into conservation land on strips of land amounting to 13 acres bordering the racetrack. The 13 acres are within the neighboring nature preserve.
The road rights of way had been in place on paper since 1962, when the county envisioned roads feeding a growing industrial zone around the remote Pratt & Whitney plant on Beeline Highway west of Indiantown Road.
In the early 1960s, the racetrack rose on 175 acres just west of Pratt but the nearly 7,000 acres bordering it on three sides ended up in county hands, preserved as the Pine Glades Natural Area.
Once the county preserved the land, removing its industrial potential, it had no intention of building roads there so it had no reason to leave those rights of way on the books. But it had never before taken steps to abandon them, even when the warehouse proposal first arose in 2021 and staff identified the need to allow extra space next to the phantom roadways.
When racetrack owners IRG Sports & Entertainment, a company owned by the Sixth Street investment firm, decided to close the track and sell the land to warehouse builder Portman Industrial, buffers and setbacks required to maintain those road rights of way impeded their plans.
They needed to get variances from the county to avoid the setbacks and buffers mandated by the rights of way.
But the Zoning Commission, after hearing complaints from disgruntled racing fans determined to block the warehouse takeover of their beloved track, voted unanimously on April 7 to deny the warehouse plan. They voted against each and every one of seven variances requested by Portman, most of them needed to avoid buffers and setbacks along the unbuilt rights of way.
The track was still open then but it closed April 23 and IRG began selling off pieces of it, such as the grandstands and the electronic timing system. Sixth Street vowed the track would not reopen.
But the battle over zoning was far from over.
Developer files legal challenge
On May 6, Portman challenged the zoning board decision under the Florida Land Use and Environmental Dispute Resolution Act. Later, a lawyer for Portman would call the zoning board’s vote an “improper denial” that “has placed an unreasonable burden on the applicant.”
The decisions “were not made in good faith,” did not take the evidence into account and were “instead made at the behest of certain parties that would prefer the racetrack remain open,” the landowner argued in its resubmitted application.
The act gave the county 10 days to forward the request to a special magistrate, who would be hired to hear the challenge, much like a mediator.
Portman representatives and county staff met on May 9. In an email, ERM’s Bonnie Finneran called the meeting productive, saying Portman’s land planner, Urban Design Studio, “confirmed that they are looking to reduce the number of landscape buffer variances required.”
That could be good for the county, wrote Steve Pisano of the county’s Environmental Resources Management Department.
“Sounds like they’re not interested in the land, just that the ROW be eliminated,” he wrote. “This may work in our favor if we are interested in gaining more NA (natural area) acreage.”
This would be a way to avoid the problem that tripped Portman up before the zoning board without drawing complaints from the racing crowd, which at the time was told the next hearing would be delayed until September.
The idea that racing fans would pack a meeting a month after the zoning vote to block the seemingly innocuous effort to abandon some rights of way in a nature preserve could not have appealed to county officials, intent on avoiding going to court over the developer’s legal challenge.
Portman Industrial, by the way, has since dropped out, as its contract to buy the land expired at the end of June.
‘Things are moving quickly’
While the emails don’t show any concerns about racing fans, they document the role of Assistant County Attorney Scott Stone in rallying staff to act on the rights of way to avoid a legal battle.
He often referred to the urgency of the matter as he cajoled and pressed various departments to get the proposal heard at the next County Commission zoning meeting, on May 26.
But not all county staffers were on board. Deb Drum, director of the county’s Environmental Resources Management Department, was scheduled to lead the presentation on May 26. But on May 11, she told Stone she needed more information.
“I am fine expediting this but I need to have a better understanding of why,” she wrote.
Stone replied that he would call her. The emails did not indicate if they talked, but her concerns remained.
“I am not comfortable providing guidance on this without a conversation with you and explanation on all the moving parts of this,” she wrote to Stone the next day. “I know things are moving quickly but no one has explained all the moving parts on this to me. I cannot provide uninformed guidance.”
May 12 was the deadline to get something to zoning administrators to hold a place on the May 26 agenda. An email from Stone indicated just how difficult that would be.
“Given the imminent deadline (5 pm today), and the fact that this agenda item was just born essentially this morning, it may be difficult to meet that timeframe to have ALL of the info by then,” Stone wrote on May 12. “The agenda item will not even be ‘blessed’ by the applicable departments until at least 3:30 pm today. What is the minimum information you need from ERM to add this to the May 26th BCC zoning agenda?”
They also considered redesignating other rights of way at the same time, which made sense to ERM’s Sandy Mann. She pointed out that adding other roads would make it “less obvious as to why we are doing the re-designation now,” she wrote to Stone on May 11.
The emails don’t explain why she was worried about revealing the reasons for abandoning the right of way.
But urgency outweighed any such concerns.
Need legal description ASAP
Stone determined that they would focus solely on the right of way around the track “to help expedite this matter so we can get it on the May 26 BCC Zoning meeting.”
To do so, they needed a legal description of the right of way and a sketch, which meant getting help from engineering staff. “Given the urgency and need to get this on the May 26th BCC meeting, can the Surveying section create such a legal and sketch ASAP?” Stone asked Deputy County Engineer Joanne Keller.
The next day, the engineering staff said it couldn’t be done.
“Being so short staffed as we find ourselves at present, and even if I push this up front, I (it) will be impossible to meet the May 26th deadline,” surveyor Jesse Perez wrote. “If I had more time, I can get it done myself within 3 of 4 weeks.”
But they only had until May 19 to make it in time for the May 26 meeting.
On May 17, they found themselves still wondering if engineering could finalize a legal description. They had dropped the demand for a site sketch.
“Even if they have changes, why does it take so long?” ERM staffer Karen Foster wrote. “It is just a Legal Description without a sketch.”
On May 18, engineering promised it would deliver the next day, just in time.
Around the same time, county officials held another meeting with the applicant, “an urgent matter due to timeframes associated with the (dispute resolution) procedure,” Stone wrote.
It was important enough that Assistant County Administrator Patrick Rutter said he would “bounce out” of briefings with commissioners that day to attend.
A planner later referred to that meeting as a “settlement/mediation conference.”
Why are we doing this now?
The item went on the May 26 agenda as a matter for consent, which is a catch-all for less critical items that can be approved in a single vote. But Sachs asked that it be pulled so it could be discussed in more detail.
County staff knew Sachs had questions about the action because she raised them during an agenda briefing, the emails show. However, the emails don’t explain why Sachs, whose district is in south county, grew concerned while the district commissioner, Maria Marino, fully supported the measure. Sachs did not return a call seeking comment.
During the meeting, Sachs repeated variations on the same questions — Why are we doing this now and what does it have to do with the track? — but got no answers.
Marino and then-Mayor Robert Weinroth tried to shut her down.
“There’s no more need or interest for racing to continue on that site,” Marino told her.
“Let’s not misstate the facts,” Weinroth said. “This particular item has nothing to do with the zoning vote,” when the zoning board rejected the warehouse plan.
The closest she got to an answer came from ERM’s Drum. “The opportunity came up for us to see that we could add 13 acres to the natural area boundary and so we decided to bring this forward now,” she said.
The emails show that county staff had prepared for Sachs’ questions by drawing up and circulating a list of responses a week earlier.
When Sachs asked specifically how the owner of the rights of way — the county — and the neighboring landowner would benefit, Drum read almost verbatim from those answers describing environmental benefits to the county but not to the warehouse developer.
Sachs pressed on, wondering again why they were doing it now, just six weeks after the zoning board struck down variances imposed because of the existence of these paper barriers.
Drum’s response: “I’m not looking at those issues so I can’t answer that.”
No one else chimed in and the measure passed 7-0, with even Sachs voting in favor.
Meeting holds little hope for racing fans
Davis and other racing fans knew nothing about the vote, anticipating the next showdown over the racetrack would occur in September.
That’s when they learned that the landowner had dropped its proposal for variances and would not have to appear again before the Zoning Commission. Instead, the landowner had a January date with the County Commission.
“It just didn’t feel right,” said Davis, who lives in Loxahatchee and used to spend most weekends with her husband at the track. “The timing of the May 26 approval made it so obvious that they were trying to help IRG after the April meeting. I couldn’t let it go.”
So she filed the public records request.
“I think people really need to take the time to learn and understand what their local government is actually doing and why,” she said.
Racing fans, now forced to drive to Orlando or farther to find a dragstrip, still plan to pack the meeting, arguing that warehouses are not the best way to use the site.
But without the variances, their chances are low. The property is zoned industrial and warehouses are allowed by right, leaving the County Commission little discretion.
If they lose, it doesn’t solve the problem of hundreds or even thousands of hot rod owners in South Florida with no place to go, Davis said.
“(Palm Beach County) Sheriff Ric Bradshaw has publicly stated his concerns about street racing here in Palm Beach County, and it will only get worse by removing a safe place for racers to go,” Davis said. “There may be no stopping the loss of this iconic track, but if our commission really wanted to, they could bring racing to Palm Beach County in a big way, much as they did with baseball. There’s a lot of money in racing.”
Many of the emails obtained by Jennifer Davis are available to you as hyperlinks throughout this story. Please click on the links to see the emails.
© 2023 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.
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