History repeats itself.
Faced with a room full of avid racing fans fighting for their way of life, a county board once again rejected plans for warehouses on the site of the former Palm Beach International Raceway.
Palm Beach County commissioners voted 4-2 Thursday to deny the application from property owner IRG Sports & Entertainment to convert the shuttered racetrack on the Beeline Highway west of Jupiter into a 2.2-million-square-foot warehouse complex.
Like the zoning board before them, commissioners trotted out a litany of reasons but few details to support their decision, an action likely to be challenged in court. The vote came after staff advised commissioners that the applicant had proven its case for warehouses under already existing industrial zoning.
But when Commissioner Maria Marino made a motion to approve the applicant’s request, her motion died for lack of a second.
Commissioner Sara Baxter moved denial and added her reasoning only after a 20-minute recess, an important addition as county lawyers warned commissioners that their actions must be based on “competent substantial evidence.”
“The competent substantial evidence Is the traffic, the safety and the changed circumstances,” Baxter said after the recess, without elaboration.
Commissioners Mack Bernard, Maria Sachs and Marci Woodward agreed, while Marino and Commissioner Michael Barnett voted against. Mayor Gregg Weiss was absent.
Owners ‘reviewing all legal options’
Staff warned commissioners that the applicant, which previously had a contract to sell the property to warehouse builder Portman Industrial, is likely to seek a reversal in Palm Beach County Circuit Court.
In a statement, a spokesman for the New York City-based investment company Sixth Street, which owns IRG, said simply: “The owners of the property are reviewing all legal options.”
No matter the county’s action, the race track is not going to reopen, IRG’s attorney, Seth Behn, made clear in his opening statement. Sixth Street, which manages assets worth $65 billion, has owned IRG since 2014 and the track has not been profitable that entire time, he said.
“Let me be clear. The race track is closed and will remain closed,” Behn said. “It will never be a viable use of this property again.”
Drove the track into the ground?
But that didn’t deter more than 70 racing fans who showed up to oppose warehouses in the hopes that one day the concrete 2.2-mile oval track and quarter-mile drag strip would welcome them back.
Several of the three dozen speakers told commissioners the warehouse plan could not be approved because IRG failed to meet a critical burden to show that circumstances have changed. They mocked the operator for letting the business fail and said that does not amount to a change in conditions.
“Self-imposed want is not a change in circumstances,” said Marc Weinthal, who runs Murray’s Speed & Custom auto parts shop.
Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Rey Alonso, who runs the Beat the Heat Program to get racers off the streets, said track management in recent years refused many overtures to develop programs to bring young drivers to the track to get them off the streets.
“This is just a large hedge fund that mismanaged the track in its final years to diminish public interest in it,” said Myron Skolte, who said he shut down his business to attend the all-day hearing.
Their words had an effect on Commissioner Bernard, who said after the meeting “I don’t know if running a business into the ground and then saying that’s a change in circumstance should qualify. They (IRG) didn’t meet the burden.”
But IRG”s attorney, Behn of Lewis Longman & Walker, said the crowd had misinterpreted their reasoning.
“We’re not here today because we drove the track into the ground,” he said, drawing derisive laughter from the audience. “The economy has changed. The county has changed.”
County staff certified that the landowner had met the burden by showing the need for more warehouses “resulting from increased consumer demands through online purchasing.”
‘Not in America’
Some racing fans said they moved to Palm Beach County to be near the track, which opened in 1965 and was known for decades as Moroso Motorsports Park. With the nearest drag strip in Orlando, they said they would have to move again if it remains closed.
Custom car maker Charles K. Green, who moved to Palm Springs from New Jersey, said he’s passing his business down to his daughter but without the race track, there’s no place to practice or gain more customers.
“None of us in the racing community are thrill-seekers. This is what we do for a living. This is our heritage,” he said.
Pete Scalzo of Sarasota said he owns five drag strips and they are thriving. He suggested the drag strip could coexist with warehouses, a concept later embraced by some county commissioners.
“Keep the drag strip. I’ll operate and pay rent. We can have both. We can have your development and we can keep racing,” he said.
Although no one presented evidence, speakers warned that the closure here would do what it has done in other areas: Spark more dangerous street racing, as racers find a way to test their vehicles on public roads.
It’s a point made last year by Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw in urging commissioners to find a way to save the track.
But Marino, who represents the district, said she tried. She asked county attorneys and zoning officials a series of questions at the start of the meeting.
“Legally are there any grounds in which the county can deny this application?”
She didn’t get a yes or no answer. Staff has determined that the application has met the burden of producing competent substantial evidence to support the plan, Assistant County Attorney Helene Hvizd told her. Hvizd warned commissioners they have discretion to disagree but it must be based on “more than opinions or emotional testimony.”
Does the county have “any right to tell the owner they have to keep it as a racetrack?” Marino asked.
“Not in America,” Hvizd said.
County addresses May silence
Even limited to two minutes each, the three dozen speakers consumed 90 minutes to address commissioners. They included a 10-year-old boy who would have started junior racing last year if the track had remained open, environmentalists who argued the track is a cleaner use than warehouses and Riviera Beach activist Fane Lozman, who questioned county staff’s decision last May to remain silent publicly on an action that eased the zoning burden facing IRG.
As detailed by OnGardens.org Jan. 23, the county faced a legal challenge over the Zoning Commission’s April 7 decision to reject seven variances needed to allow the warehouses.
The developer agreed to put its May 6 challenge on hold if the county moved quickly to remove several road rights of way, which had created the need for the variances.
On May 26, county commissioners took that action, voting to redesignate 13 acres of unbuilt road strips as conservation land in the county-owned neighboring Pine Glades Natural Area. That removed the need for several buffers and setbacks that the builder sought to waive.
When Sachs, during a public hearing on that action, asked why the matter had come up just six weeks after the zoning refusal, county staff didn’t answer.
Internal emails obtained by racing fan Jennifer Davis showed that the action came about to neutralize the developers’ legal challenge.
That challenge remains in play now, as it was put on hold but never lifted. Additionally, the landowner can ask a court to simply overrule the commission’s decision or pursue damages for the lost value of its 175 acres.
A similar challenge in West Palm Beach in 2014 took a year to go through a trial court and an appeals court before the zoning decision was thrown out.
A trial seeking damages would force the landowner to present proof of the land’s value, land that experts last year said could be worth as much as $1 million per acre.
Commissioners also gave the landowner the option of submitting a new zoning request without a required one-year waiting period.
While county staff did not respond to several recent requests to explain their May actions, Hvizd spoke out at Thursday’s meeting. She said the commissioners had been briefed in private, which appeared sufficient to her.
“We don’t advise county commissioners in our emails and we don’t do it in public,” she said, adding that by failing to publicly state the reason for the action, staff did not do anything unethical.
By keeping the matter quiet, however, it passed without any protest from racing fans, who didn’t know it was even being contemplated and didn’t find out until October.
‘The correct legalese’
As commissioners deliberated, they appeared resigned to vote in favor of the warehouses.
Marino said she had experience racing on the track and had been working on solutions.
“Your voices have all been heard,” she said. “We’re not trying to put racing out of business.”
Bottom line though, the county doesn’t have enough money to buy the property, Marino said, adding if 100 racing fans put up $1 million each, “we’re talking about a price of that much to do it.”
Baxter, who described herself as probably most “race friendly” among commissioners because she spends time at tracks with her husband and children, said she, too, couldn’t find a way to avoid the inevitable.
“I have asked question after question to find some substantial evidence to help you,” she told the racing fans. “I can’t tell you how much digging I have done. I just have not been able to find it.”
But when Marino’s motion failed, Baxter sprang forward with a motion to deny. Bernard seconded.
Warned that the move could lead to legal action, Sachs, a lawyer, urged them on.
“We have discretion as elected officials to reach decisions,” she said, “if we frame our denial with the correct legalese — magic words.”
© 2023 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.