‘Not a stop sign:’ Raceway fight hits brick wall but new path opens

Commissioners approve warehouse complex at Palm Beach International Raceway, then endorse search for new racetrack site.

Palm Beach County Commission

With their attorneys waving the white flag, county commissioners Thursday reversed a January decision and approved zoning to allow a massive warehouse complex at the shuttered Palm Beach International Raceway.

But they rolled out a potential final lap for racing fans who have been fighting the warehouses for more than a year: At least three commissioners said they would seek a way to build a new raceway in Palm Beach County.

If commissioners had rejected the racetrack-to-warehouse conversion for a second time, property owner IRG Sports & Entertainment would have been entitled to collect $81 million under a state law that reimburses landowners for unfair government acts, Assistant County Attorney Darren Leiser warned commissioners. 

“It was very clear,” County Mayor Gregg Weiss said. “The recommendation was that it was going to be a very difficult case for the county to win.”

Commissioners voted 4-2 on Jan. 26 to reject the plan for 2.2 million square feet of warehouses at the 175-acre racetrack site on the Beeline Highway west of Jupiter. 

But IRG challenged the decision under a state law that allowed for a hearing before a special magistrate, who ruled in the landowner’s favor on May 2. On Thursday, commissioners weighed the magistrate’s recommendation, as required by the state law.

But IRG tapped another state law, the Bert J. Harris Jr. Private Property Protection Act of 1995, to press a different claim. If the county ignored the magistrate’s recommendation and again denied them warehouse use on their land the action would amount to a taking and they would be eligible to be compensated. 

The county attorney’s office had argued in front of the special magistrate on April 19 that the commission had the right to reject warehouses. But the magistrate, retired Administrative Law Judge Bram Canter, found the commission’s vote “unfairly burdens” the property owner. He recommended the commission reverse itself.

IRG argued that since warehouses are permitted “by right” in the raceway’s industrial zoning, denying warehouses amounts to a taking and they deserve compensation. Their appraiser said the company owned by New York investment firm Sixth Street would suffer $81.4 million in damages if the warehouses were blocked.

Assistant Palm Beach County attorney
Darren Leiser (May 25 meeting video)

The county’s attorney, Leiser, agreed that a judge would find the county had placed an “inordinate burden” on the landowner, a key factor in deciding a Bert Harris claim. 

“Denial will put the county taxpayers on the hook for upwards of $81,381,000 in damages not including attorney’s fees,” Leiser said.

‘No requirement to fold’

As they have done since April 2022, racetrack fans turned out to see what commissioners would do. They packed the 9:30 a.m. meeting, although many left by the time the matter came up after lunch. 

Madelyn Marconi (May 25 meeting video)

Commissioners heard from more than 30 opponents and received emails from many more.

“There is no requirement for the commissioners who denied this application to fold because of a thin-veiled threat of a lawsuit by this applicant seeking a bailout due to the applicant’s own poor business sense,” racing advocate Madelyn Marconi said. “This shouldn’t be considered, let alone be the driving force today.”

But commissioners cited the legal threat before voting unanimously to allow the warehouse complex.  

“I can’t in good conscience put an $82 million price tag on our taxpayers here in Palm Beach County when we just had to go out and float a $200 million bond for housing,” said Commissioner Maria Marino, who voted in favor of the warehouse conversion in January.

Saying the passion of the racetrack supporters swayed her to vote against the warehouses in January, Commissioner Marci Woodward said no this time. “I can’t risk an $80 million to $100 million lawsuit that comes to us and we actually get nothing out of it.”

IRG attorney Seth Behn said his client held off on marketing the site until it received the zoning go-ahead but would start looking for a buyer immediately. A deal to sell to Portman Industrial collapsed last year after the county zoning board rejected the initial warehouse plan. 

off-road vehicle
Site of proposed off-road vehicle park at State Road 80 and SR 880 near Twenty-Mile Bend.

128-acre site pitched

The racing fans’ yearlong resistance, passion and stories of family growth and economic boons, however, made an impression on commissioners. 

“This is not a stop sign. This is just a yield sign,” Commissioner Maria Sachs said. “We don’t need this land to build another racetrack if that’s what the public wants.”

Marino added, “If you all want racing in the county, all of us would help in finding a venue for that.”

At the urging of Commissioner Sara Baxter, commissioners agreed to consider changing direction on plans for an off-road vehicle park on 128 acres on the south side of Southern Boulevard at 20-Mile Bend. 

Commissioners agreed in 2021 to partner with a private-sector developer on the off-road track but no potential partners have come forward. 

Staff agreed to conduct an “initial assessment of possibilities” for a raceway at the site next to the sheriff’s shooting range and report back by October. 

Baxter said the site might be expendable because she is working with GL Homes on providing 200 acres for an off-road vehicle park in The Acreage as part of the controversial land swap that would allow GL to build on preserved land in south county’s Agricultural Reserve. 

Jennifer Davis (May 25 meeting video)

The concept of a quarter-mile drag strip on the 128-acre site had raceway supporter Jennifer Davis mapping out distances Friday morning. 

A diagonal line across the site measured 3,715 feet, just shy of the 3,800 feet occupied by the drag strip at PBIR, she said. The starting line, where most of the engine noise is generated, would be about 2 miles from the nearest homes at Arden while the track at PBIR stood about 2.4 miles from the nearest homes at Caloosa, she calculated.

“It looks doable to me,” she wrote. “Of course this is all speculation, and we look forward to hearing what the county staff feasibility report says. There are certainly a lot of folks in this community who have spent much longer than I in this sport. I certainly hope their expertise is tapped when the time comes.”

The final days at Palm Beach International Raceway

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© 2023 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.

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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