Avoiding a Building Moratorium in Florida: City of Palm Beach Gardens and Developers Cooperated

This was an easy column to write. Why? It's about a true story, with an interesting cast of characters, a happy ending, and it all took place right here in northern Palm Beach County.

The story begins a few months ago when the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation agreed to sell almost 2,000 acres of prime Palm Beach County property to Watermark Communities, Inc. ( [email protected]), one of this state's largest land developers. A substantial majority of the lands acquired by WCI are located within the City of Palm Beach Gardens. As a result, the two biggest players in this story are WCI and the City of Palm Beach Gardens.

The cast of characters expanded significantly when WCI immediately sold a number of very important parcels (including most of the remaining undeveloped lands surrounding The Gardens Mall) to several other large developers. Suddenly, in the span of just a few months, the relatively peaceful and ordered relationship between Palm Beach Gardens and the City's development community had given way to a frenetic, high stakes, first-come-first-served race to file development applications with the City.

To declare this period as a defining moment in the history of the City would be an understatement. Given the importance of the properties involved and the billions of dollars of improvements planned, few would argue that, perhaps more than any other event in the history of northern Palm Beach County, this event had the potential to impact our quality of life like no other. The City's management of this event would affect life in our community for a long, long time.

After much discussion, the City responded by declaring its intention to consider the adoption of a building moratorium. It had no choice: given the sudden explosion in development applications, it was the only responsible thing to do. The City would need time to react, and a moratorium would provide that time. Among other things, the City Planning & Zoning staff would need to be significantly increased.

The adoption of a moratorium is serious business. The mere mention of the word usually causes shockwaves throughout the development, banking and business community. When governments adopt moratoriums, lawsuits usually follow. When Palm Beach Gardens announced its intention to adopt a moratorium, WCI and its progeny of developers reacted immediately.

It was at this point that a remarkable series of events began to unfold which ultimately resulted in the avoidance of a building moratorium and the litigation which was sure to follow. How and why it was avoided in Palm Beach Gardens is worth knowing.

It's not necessary to provide a detailed account of the numerous meetings between developers, lawyers and representatives of the City to impart an understanding of how a moratorium was avoided and both the City of Palm Beach Gardens and the development community concluded a unique agreement by which both gained valuable benefits. While some of those details are interesting, they are largely irrelevant and add little to understanding how and why these parties succeeded when so many others have not.

It is more important to know that the parties were successful because they were realistic, practical, imaginative and hard-working. Had they not decided that it was better to cooperate than litigate, the citizens of northern Palm Beach County would not be the beneficiaries of an agreement which will enable dozens of developers, planners, City staff and council members to focus on matters of City planning, rather than litigation.

The citizens of northern Palm Beach County owe a large debt of thanks to the Palm Beach Gardens City Council, which collectively directed the City's resources-particularly its Growth Management staff and its City Attorneys-to accomplish this important achievement.

Thanks also should be extended to WCI and the other developers who helped to find a way to construct a win-win situation out of conflict.