It's taken a thousand-signature petition, a mass letter-writing campaign, widespread condemnation from homeowners' groups, multiple lawsuits, and hundreds of angry resident complaints, but the Fort Lauderdale City Commission is finally looking a little shaken about the proposed Bahia Mar development plan.
After roughly five more hours of public comments, the City Commission balked yet again on approving the plan which, if enacted, would plunk two 29-story condominium towers on a stretch of historic, publicly owned land. This time around, a nervous-seeming Romney Rogers — the swing vote — said he was concerned that if he approved the plan last night (which required four of five commissioners' votes), subsequent lease agreements on the property only required three of five votes, which would theoretically let the three pro-development commissioners have their way on future decisions about the property. Just before 1 a.m. today, the commission delayed the vote again but will vote on the plan in two weeks, on June 21.
Before last night's meeting even began, there was an air of dread hanging over the affair: Yesterday, the Sun-Sentinel reported that two different people had filed a lawsuit against the city over the project which, if enacted, would let the two record-breaking structures sprout along the beach. The project has been proposed by a powerhouse team of developers known as TRR Bahia Mar LLC — James Tate of Tate Capital along with Sergio Rok of Miami's Rok Group and Miami-Dade's RCI Marine and Rialto Capital. Fort Lauderdale superlobbyist Robert Lochrie III acts as the project's spokesperson. The development group has donated en masse to each member of the City Commission.
A private hotel already operates on the publicly owned Bahia Mar site, which sits along A1A and Seabreeze Boulevard. TRR Bahia Mar had originally proposed building two 39-story skyscrapers on the site, but local residents then browbeat the commission into forcing the developers to chop the skyscrapers down to 29 stories. But at that height, the towers would still break zoning laws. On May 10, the city preliminarily voted to classify the site as an "innovative development" and let it flout the city's normal rules. Last night's public hearing could have sealed the change for good.
But the project's main cadre of opponents, a ragtag group of longtime homeowners and neighborhood leaders, all returned to protest. Like the last two public hearings about the project, residents logged complaints for hours: Some said the towers were too tall and would cast shadows on the beach; others said the city shouldn't be building when sea-level rise could drown the entire town; others claimed there is simply no demand for 537 more condos in town; and others still claimed the entire city commission has been "bought off" by the developers, who already own the lease for the Doubletree Hilton that currently sits on the property. One group of complainants even read from a continuous script, which was passed from person-to-person as the night went on. (Our unscientific count pegged the crowd as 70 percent opposed, 30 percent for.)
Former City Commissioner Charlotte Rodstrom, who lives a mile and a half from the Bahia Mar, even showed up, if only for a chance to berate sitting city officials to their faces. Rodstrom brought up the fact that each of the current commissioners approved a rule change in 2013 that created the "innovative development" zoning code, which critics say exists just so well-connected developers can skirt local zoning laws.
"What did you think was going to happen?" she asked. "This is the first project that has come forward for your vote. It's public property. My question to you: Is public purpose part of the ID zoning criteria? Do you know? You voted for it. There's so many unanswered questions about this development."
By the end of the night, Rogers, who campaigned on an anti-development platform, looked shaken. He'd voted to approve the zoning change in May, but it sounded as if he was beginning to rethink his decision.
After the hearing ended, a few commissioners squabbled over language in the leases required to build the towers, and the delay really came down to some complicated political maneuvering. Rogers brought up the fact that, although last night's zoning change required a 4-1 vote, any subsequent lease agreements would only require a 3-2 vote. At the moment, only Vice Mayor Dean Trantalis opposes the plan, with Rogers effectively acting as the Bahia Mar's Justice Anthony Kennedy. Rogers was openly worried that if he voted to approve the rezoning plan, he'd be handing Seiler and Commissioners Robert McKinzie and Bruce Roberts a 3-2 majority to make whatever changes they wanted to the leases.
So, Rogers offered an easy solution: Hold off, and change the voting procedures to ensure that every step requires a 4-1 vote.
"We really need to know what this is going to look like, in black and white on paper, in a lease that's enforceable, from A to Z, before we need to go back to the site plan and say, okay, we can live with that," Rogers said. After some back-and-forth, the rest of the Commission agreed to let the zoning fight drag on for another two weeks. They looked exhausted.