“Warehouses vs. Racetrack 2” is coming to a County Commission near you.
A special magistrate is backing the warehouses.
After a four-hour hearing in April, Special Magistrate Bram Canter spelled out in an 11-page report Tuesday why he believed the County Commission’s refusal to allow a 2.2 million-square-foot warehouse complex at the shuttered Palm Beach International Raceway was “unreasonable.”
Racing fans have fought the plan for more than a year, arguing that raceway owner IRG Sports & Entertainment let the property decline to build support for its conversion to warehouses. IRG said it lost millions on racing and had every right to build warehouses at the industrially zoned site.
“Zachary Boyajian (a racetrack supporter) asked rhetorically if we are to just watch as golf courses, horse tracks, and racetracks are replaced by warehouses,” Canter wrote. “His concern is not unreasonable but the special magistrate (Canter) is unfamiliar with and was not shown any court decisions that would allow this situation to be remedied by taking away a landowner’s ability to stop operating a business it no longer wants to operate.
“The special magistrate is confident there is no support in law for the proposition that a landowner can be forced by a city or county to continue operating a business the landowner no longer wants to operate.”
His words echo those of Assistant County Attorney Helene Hvizd, who, when asked by a commissioner in January if the county has the right to tell the owners they must keep the property a racetrack, replied: “Not in America.”
Next step: Back to the County Commission
Canter ruled the county’s rejection, despite a staff analysis saying the applicant met all of the conditions for approval, “unfairly burdens (the owner’s) use of the property.”
His recommendation now goes before the County Commission, which can accept, modify or reject it. The hearing date of “Warehouses vs. Racetrack 2” has not been scheduled but must be held within 45 days, by June 16.
The owners have the option to sue if the commission rejects the recommendation.
In January, commissioners voted 4-2 to reject the warehouse proposal from IRG, which is owned by New York-based Sixth Street investors. The 175-acre racetrack, on the Beeline Highway west of Jupiter, closed in April 2022.
The owners, whose real estate expert appraised the property at $77 million, now refer to the site as the Palm Beach Logistics Center.
“We encourage the commission to closely consider this ruling and the facts of the case as they make their final decision,” IRG’s attorney, Seth Behn, said in a statement. “As this ruling clearly supports, the owners of Palm Beach Logistics Center are well within their rights to develop this project, which benefits all residents of Palm Beach County by creating good jobs, generating millions in new tax dollars for the community, and fills an infrastructure void that is much needed for our bustling local economy.”
Jennifer Davis, one of five racing fans allowed to address the magistrate, said the ruling left her disappointed but urged commissioners to stay strong.
“I am not an expert in property law, but I feel the judge placed the unrealized, unsubstantiated profits of IRG above the wishes of the public,” Davis said in a statement. “Our elected board has a duty to their constituents, and this is one of the few times they kept the voice of the public at the forefront of their decision-making process. I hope the BCC (County Commission) will continue to work to ensure the will of the public is upheld.”
Marc Weinthal, owner of Murray’s Speed & Custom auto parts shop, still doesn’t buy the argument that wanting warehouses amounts to a changed site condition. “A want is not a need,” he said.
“I hope the County Commission stands by their decision and stands by the local businesses, residents, and community,” he said in a statement. “The destruction of the racetrack to build warehouses for large corporations will continue to put us mom and pop stores out of business. The county commissioners say they support the community and local businesses. Well, here is their chance.”
Racing fans won initial heats
Fans, many with longstanding ties to the track that opened in 1964 and long known as Moroso Motorsports Park, have jammed meetings to oppose IRG’s plans. In April 2022, the county zoning board sided with racing fans and rejected seven waivers initially needed to allow warehouses.
At the time, IRG had a contract to sell the property to Atlanta-based Portman Industrial, a contract that has since lapsed.
A few weeks later, the county made changes to neighboring county-owned land that eliminated the need for waivers. After county commissioners still rejected their plans in January, IRG filed a petition under a state law meant to protect private property rights from unfair government actions, sparking the hearing before Canter.
IRG and the county agreed to hire Canter, a retired administrative law judge from Tallahassee who is no longer eligible to practice law in Florida.
Circumstances have changed, Canter says
On the key point of whether IRG had shown that circumstances had changed to justify warehouses, he rejected arguments presented by five racing fans.
Their comments show “strong support” for reopening the raceway, suggesting the raceway “could be operated differently and become profitable,” he wrote.
But, Canter pointed out, they “did not refute the fact that there has been a substantial increase in the need for warehousing and the racetrack property has become well-suited for that use, which are reasons the board has previously found sufficient to meet the changed conditions standard.
“The owners have shown,” he wrote, “substantial population growth since the racetrack was built and the continuous growth in online shopping have combined to greatly increase the need for warehousing.”
Further, the property is on a state highway, making it “ideally situated” for warehouses, Canter said.
Check back here for updates to this story.
© 2023 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.