The owners of the Esperante office tower are demanding the Planning Board redo its 3-2 vote approving the Okeechobee Business District, asserting that board member Gregg Weiss, a candidate for county commission, illegally recused himself from voting on the controversial matter.
The board voted May 15 to create the zoning district, which would allow construction of a 25-story office tower along the waterfront in front of the Esperante, an area that voter referenda have restricted to five-story buildings.
Esperante attorney Nathan Nason on Friday sent a letter to city Planning and Zoning Administrator Angela Jones-Vann, saying Florida law requires public board members to vote unless they have a clear conflict of interest. Weiss didn’t, Nason wrote, calling for a rehearing by the full Planning Board.
Weiss said he recused himself because he and the First Church of Christ, Scientist, which owns the property that would be rezoned in front of the 20-story Esperante, use the same financial adviser. He said he brought the potential conflict to the attention of Assistant City Attorney Samuel Thomas, who told him that, “in an abundance of caution,” he shouldn’t vote.
But Nason, citing Florida Statutes and case law, said Weiss’ situation didn’t meet the legal definition of a conflict of interest sufficient to skip a required vote. “Nothing disclosed by Mr. Weiss’s statements on May 15, 2018 indicated his money manager was a relative, business associate, client, or a subsidiary of these categories or that his vote would inure to the economic benefit or harm of a relative, business associate, client or employer,” Nason wrote. “Accordingly, Mr. Weiss was prohibited from abstaining ….”
Mayor Jeri Muoio and her staff have pushed hard to establish the Okeechobee Business District, to attract construction of Class A office towers downtown and build the city’s employment base. The district’s most immediate beneficiary would be the city’s biggest developer, The Related Cos., which hoped to build an office tower called One Flagler on the church property, which would partially block views from the Esperante’s Class A offices just to the west on Okeechobee Boulevard. Related has not said whether it would restart its project if the district were approved.
The city commission shot down the proposal for the district last September by a 2-3 vote but municipal elections this past March brought in two new commissioners, Christina Lambert and Kelly Shoaf, who have indicated their support for such a tower. So the mayor had her staff revive the Okeechobee Business District rezoning and the May 15 Planning Board vote was its first step toward a new commission vote, which is expected June 18.
“We think there’s going to be an adverse effect on our property value and we think we should be entitled to rely upon the referenda that have been passed by voters of West Palm Beach that limit height in that area to five stories. That’s the larger picture,” Nason said. The immediate issue, he said, is “the city’s effort to try to accelerate this process at an undue pace. This particular recusal wasn’t fully considered by the city attorney and we think it was incorrect.”
City Administrator Jeff Green responded Friday that it’s up to each board member and not the city to determine whether he or she has a conflict of interest. “Should this come to the city commission as an appeal, we don’t believe the city commission has the authority to order Mr. Weiss to vote if he has a conflict.”
“Mr. Weiss relied upon the advice of the city attorney,” Nason countered. “I don’t see how they could take that position and maintain that. That’s an inconsistency. If he improperly recused himself, it invalidates the vote.”