Crocker Partners built many of Boca Raton’s most important commercial buildings. Now the company is threatening to sue its hometown community for $138 million.
“This is the worst experience I’ve ever had working with a municipality. It’s shocking. They pushed us to sue them,” said Angelo Bianco, Crocker Partners’ managing partner.
The Boca Raton-based development group, which built the Mizner Park shopping center and just bought the former IBM campus, sent the city a legal notice on Wednesday. The notice warns that Crocker plans to file a lawsuit over what it says is the city’s foot-dragging on zoning regulations for properties Crocker owns along Military Trail, near the Town Center mall.
The Crocker properties, within a section of the city dubbed “Midtown,” are the subject of heated debate among city leaders and residents.
The properties are the Boca Center, an office-retail complex; The Plaza office building; and the One Town Center office building. The properties were built by Crocker, sold to third parties and then repurchased by Crocker in 2014, with plans to build apartments on portions of the sites.
Some people support Crocker’s desire to build high-rise residential buildings on its commercial properties in order to accomplish the goal of the city-designated “planned mobility district,” an area where homes are built near shops and offices to cut down on traffic.
But opponents say building apartments in an already-busy part of the city would only worsen traffic.
The issue came to a head in January at a Boca Raton City Council meeting, when the council considered whether to allow up to 2,500 residential units in this commercial part of town. Other property owners in Midtown include Cypress Realty and Trademark.
After a standing-room-only meeting that lasted five hours, the city council decided to postpone a decision on zoning regulations for Midtown. Instead, the council voted 4-1 for an “area plan” designed to receive input from the public.
Crocker’s Bianco said the move was an unfair stalling tactic.
Bianco said Crocker is being treated differently from other developers who have sought and received zoning regulations. These developers have been allowed to build apartments in other commercial parts of the city, such as the former Arvida Park of Commerce, he said.
Crocker decided to seek legal action against the city after more than two years of trying to get the city to draft zoning regulations for the 63 acres it owns in Midtown, Bianco said.
“We are part of this community, but we are dealing with a city government that is so deaf to the community and its most vaunted developer, it’s a disgrace,” Bianco said.
The city’s delays in zoning regulations have cost Crocker $138 million in lost market value, the company claims in documents sent to the city.
Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie, who was the sole vote against the January decision to create the area plan, said on Wednesday that the city’s attorney is studying the Crocker claims.
Haynie said the zoning regulations for the Midtown section of the city were supposed to have been created after the city annexed the land from the county in 2010. But for various reasons, including the complexity and density of the area, the zoning regulations have not yet been written, she said.
As such, Crocker’s lawsuit threat “is a reflection of their frustration,” Haynie said. “It’s been a long time.”
The city has 150 days to respond in writing to Crocker’s notice, and it’s possible a lawsuit could be averted, said Crocker’s lawyer, Henry Handler of Boca Raton. In fact, the lengthy time period gives both sides a chance to settle the matter, Handler said.
If not, the case goes to court, and Boca Raton taxpayers could be stuck with the bill if Crocker prevails, Bianco said.
Crocker filed a notice of claim pursuant to a 1995 Florida law known as the Bert Harris Act. The act is a way to protect the interests of private property owners from government burdens.
Under the Harris Act, a claim exists if a governmental entity “inordinately burdens” a property’s use by limiting its use, so that the property owner is unable to attain a “reasonable, investment-backed expectation” for the property, according to the statute.
Since the act’s creation in 1995, the act has been used about 50 times in courts and more in matters that were handled outside of court, said Ronald Weaver, a Tampa lawyer who has handled several Harris Act matters.
Recently, Florida’s 4th District Court of Appeal overturned a lower court’s ruling on a Harris Act claim, finding that a property owner was entitled to use a property zoned light industrial for a concrete plant, said David Adelstein, a Fort Lauderdale attorney.
Gerald Richman, a West Palm Beach lawyer, said the Harris Act is not widely used because it’s very specific. However, “it is an important tool if you can fit into the requirements of the act,” Richman said.