$1.1 million settlement: Lawyer compares West Palm to ‘Rommel in Africa’

Article Courtesy of The Palm Beach Post

By Tony Doris

Published April 30, 2015


WEST PALM BEACH -- Developer Flagler Investors agreed to pay $1.1 million to get a citizens group opposed to its planned condo tower on South Flagler Drive to drop lawsuits against West Palm Beach, allowing the 22-story project to move forward.

The settlement, whose terms became public Wednesday, relieved the developer of risk of costly construction delays or of coming out of the ground too late for the rising condo market. It left Citizens for Thoughtful Growth — West Palm Beach with a war chest for battling other projects proposed in the city.


Though Flagler’s lawyer, Michael Burman, represented the city for free in the negotiations, Mayor Jeri Muoio on Wednesday said the city neither contributed to nor participated in the settlement. Muoio said the citizens group’s result “borders on extortion” and could discourage other developments.

The group’s chance to object to the proposal was at public meetings, not in court, the mayor said.

Citizens for Thoughtful Growth fought the 291-foot-tall project on the grounds that it was too massive for the 3.2-acre site at 1112 S. Flagler Drive, for which the city comprehensive plan normally would require 10 acres. And the citizens group had won court decisions against the city’s approvals of the project, alleging the public meetings were conducted improperly.

Chapel by the Lake site condo design

But the group said that it couldn’t afford to continue the legal fight. Now it has dropped the litigation but has $1.1 million, minus attorney’s fees, to use in opposing future projects in the city.

“If she thinks it’s extortion, that’s bull,” Citizens attorney Bob Critton said Wednesday. “It’s reprehensible that the city hired the developer’s lawyers to represent both the city and the developers’ interests on a project the city was responsible for approving,” he said.

The city had the developers’ lawyers and experts, its own staff lawyers and planning department stacked up against “a citizens group which was funded solely by modest donations by people who were interested in preserving, one, the Chapel property because of its religious significance and its meaning to these people, and two, in protecting and preserving waterfront views for everyone who not only lives here in West Palm Beach but for people visit here and most importantly people who want the city to comply with its comprehensive plan,” its development guidelines, Critton said.

“The group had the right to seek redress with the court system,” he continued. The city “didn’t want to use the court system. They wanted to do the Panzer movement all over the citizens. She took her cues from Rommel in Africa in World War II.”

The mayor’s spokesman took issue with that characterization. “To use a Nazi reference in this context is reprehensible,” Elliot Cohen said.

Burman said the city comes out a winner in the settlement. All the lawsuits are dismissed, the city wasn’t forced to change its comprehensive plan or approvals processes, and it will get jobs and tax revenue, he said. The developer, meanwhile, gets to build without making changes to the project, he said.

“I wouldn’t say it sends a bad message — it’s just people exerting rights under the law and I think the law is too permissive and ought to be changed,” the developer’s lawyer said.

Burman said that the mayor’s comments notwithstanding, he did keep the city appraised of mediation and negotiations, just not dollar amounts, since the developer alone would pay those.

“It’s very, very true that the city’s position was that they would pay nothing, they refused any concessions requested by the citizens group,” he said. “But I kept assistant city attorneys advised of what was going on.”