Judge rips Boca politicians, opens way for beachfront home project

BOCA RATON — A federal judge has ruled the owner of beachfront property in Boca Raton has the right to build a home on his land, and that the mayor and two city council members were predisposed to block him from doing it.

In an order that potentially carries broad consequences for a city that has long sought to keep its shoreline free of development, U.S. District Judge Rodney Smith of Fort Lauderdale said the city should reconsider its 2019 decision to deny Natural Lands LLC a permit to build a home at 2500 N. Ocean Blvd.

The judge also found that the landowner was hindered by bias on the part of three elected city officials, including Mayor Scott Singer. The judge barred them from sitting in judgment of any renewed application from developer Gavriel Naim, owner of Natural Lands.

“The judge found they were all biased and there was no way they were going to get a fair hearing on this,” Fort Lauderdale attorney Jordan Isrow of the Government Law Group in Fort Lauderdale told the Sun Sentinel last week.

Besides Singer, the judge was critical of council members Monica Mayotte and Andrea O’Rourke, the latter of whom has since left office,

“[W]e knew from the onset that there’s no way that [plaintiff] was going to get a fair hearing. None whatsoever with respect to these particular council members as well,” the judge wrote in his findings.

Smith is expected to issue a final written opinion soon.

The case may also impact a neighboring property, whose owner has encountered similar treatment from the city, according to attorney Robert Sweetapple. He represents Delray Beach-based Azure Development, which is trying to build a residential project at the neighboring 2600 N. Ocean Blvd. in the face of city opposition.

“The city has consistently resisted any development on those two residential lots but at the same time attempted to investigate through the beach commission taking them by eminent domain,” Sweetapple said Friday in an interview.

The empty beach lot at 2500 N. Ocean Blvd. in Boca Raton. A federal judge has ruled the owner has the right to construct a home on the property, and that three city council members were biased when they decided to deny the landowner’s building application. (John McCall/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

It is unknown what the city intends to do next.

Private attorneys Daniel Abbott and Anne Reilly Flanigan, who represent the city from the law firm of Weiss Serota Helfman Cole Bierman in Fort Lauderdale, declined comment through a spokesman.

Anne Marie Connolly, the city’s communications and marketing manager, said Friday the city “is awaiting the final order from the judge. Once the city receives a final issuance, there will be a determination on how to proceed at that time.”

Since the litigation is still pending, she added, “we cannot comment any further.”

Natural Lands bought the property in 2011, with Naim, the owner and a commercial real estate developer, hoping to build a four-story, 8,600-square-foot home as a personal retreat, Isrow said.

In 2015, the city council granted a variance to build the home and the state of Florida awarded a permit certifying that the project wouldn’t harm the shoreline environment.

But over the ensuing four years, public pressure against beach development grew. And the council, citing staff member conclusions, overrode the state’s permit.

In 2019, Natural Lands sued in state court, which decided that Mayotte and O’Rourke, two of the council members, should have recused themselves because of adverse comments they made about the project prior to their decision. An appellate panel ordered a new vote without the two women’s participation.

Natural Lands also sued in U.S. District Court, alleging the city had engaged in a “taking” that undercut the value of the property, which was purchased in 2011 for $950,000.

“Our position is if the state granted our permit within eight months … how can the city take a contrary position about environmental impact?” Isrow said Friday.

Around the start of the federal trial in March, Sweetapple, who had previously sued the city over state Sunshine Law violations arising from its dispute with Azure, shared documents he’d collected with Natural Lands’ lawyers that showed discussions involving the council members and Mayor Singer had taken place privately.

“We were able to see what was behind the curtain,” Sweetapple said Friday in an interview.

During closing arguments, Abbott, who represents the city, objected to the documents’ use, saying he had come to court to defend against Natural Lands’ reverse condemnation case, not allegations that the city had violated the landowner’s due process rights.

Nonetheless, Smith, a former state prosecutor and county and circuit court judge in Miami-Dade County, indicated he was taken aback by evidence that clearly showed bias on the part of the elected Boca Raton officials.

The mayor was “clearly biased by any stretch of the imagination,” the judge said, according to a transcript of a March 24 hearing at which he delivered his findings.

“Singer looked at us like a deer in headlamps who was a person, a trained lawyer, that he never heard of the word ‘fair’ before,” Smith said.

He also referred to a video in which the mayor “stood on the plaintiff’s property, said there’s no way that this property will ever be built. We’re going to keep it that way.”

Mayotte, the judge said, “displayed complete bias from the start.”

O’Rourke, Smith said, “walked in here and took the stand and literally feigned ignorance, or was in denial of where she had multiple communications with individuals that violated not only the city’s codes but the Sunshine Law as well ….”

In the end, Smith did not rule that the city’s action amounted to the taking of land for a public use. And he affirmed the local government’s right to regulate properties around the city.

“The court wishes to underscore that the city has the right to regulate the parcel at 2500 North Ocean … just as it does all other parcels within the city,” the judge said. “However, it must do so without depriving any citizens without due process of law.”

Article Link: Judge rips Boca politicians, opens way for beachfront home project
Author: David Lyons