Judge’s ruling may mean clear sailing for marina project

Vero Beach City Hall [Photo: Kaila Jones]

Vero Beach, armed with a court decision in its favor, can finally move forward with its long-delayed plan to build a significantly larger boat-storage facility at the municipal marina.

That’s essentially what Circuit Court Judge Elizabeth Metzger told officials last week when, acting in an appellate role, she denied a request from the project’s opponents to review and reject the process the city followed in approving the site plan.

“The judge denied the petition, so it’s dead,” City Attorney John Turner said of Metzger’s decision, which was entered into the court record on Aug. 9. “There’s no ruling. There’s nothing to appeal. It’s over.”

Metzger’s decision ended a tumultuous, sometimes-contentious dispute between city officials and the Vero Beach Preservation Alliance, which was formed by a group of marina-area residents who waited until late in the approval process to voice their objections, then fiercely fought the plan for more than year.

The alliance’s efforts, which produced an unsatisfactory compromise from the city last summer and a court-voided referendum in November, ultimately failed. But the clash delayed the start of the project for eight months.

“The Planning and Zoning Board approved the site plan last fall, and the City Council upheld the P&Z’s decision in early December,” City Manager Monte Falls said. “The lawsuit was filed in January, and we’ve been on hold since then.

“If the lawsuit hadn’t been filed,” he added, “we’d be under construction by now.”

Falls said the alliance’s legal action – technically, the group filed a “writ of certiorari,” a legal document asking a higher court to review a case after it’s tried in a lower court – did more than delay the project.

It undoubtedly increased the cost.

“Have you seen what’s been happening with prices the past year?” Falls asked rhetorically.

“While we’ve been sitting around all these months, unable to move forward, prices have been going up.”

The cost of the project was projected to be $7.6 million, funded by $750,000 in grant money, a $2 million capital-improvements contribution from the city’s general fund and a low-interest $4.8 million loan.

The city is currently preparing its request for bids, which Falls said should be completed and disseminated next month. He expects the city to have all bids in hand 60 days later.

The permitting process shouldn’t be a problem, he said, because it’s a metal building and relatively uncomplicated design. Still, he doesn’t anticipate construction, which he predicts will take six months to complete, to start until early next spring.

“If we get started April 1, the new facility should be ready by Thanksgiving 2024,” he added.

“So, all in all, the lawsuit will have pushed us back about a year later than we expected.”

Karen Marcil, who lives adjacent to the marina and helped found the alliance, was also a named plaintiff in the court filing. In a text message last weekend, her husband, Roger, wrote that she didn’t want to comment at this time on the judge’s decision.

The alliance attempted to derail the city’s plan to demolish the existing-but-dilapidated 7,850-square-foot dry storage facility and replace it with a new 21,355-square-foot structure capable of housing up to 120 boats up to 35 feet long.

Opponents to the project complained the new boat barn, which will be triple the size of the current facility, was incompatible with the residential character of the adjacent neighborhood.

They argued that a facility of such size would create noise, traffic and parking issues, which would disrupt and diminish nearby residents’ quality of life.

They also cited the environmental impact – on marine life, water quality and natural habitats at and near the marina – of having a storage facility capable of housing so many boats, which would increase boat traffic in the area.

The city’s initial plan called for a 25,768-square foot building that would increase boat-storage capacity from 64 to 160 facility in response to historically high demand after locals invested in boats during pandemic shutdowns. But in an effort to appease the alliance, officials agreed to scale back to a 21,355-square-foot structure.

The alliance members were not satisfied with the compromise.

Rebuffed by the city, they successfully petitioned to put a referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot.

If approved, the ordinance also would have required public approval of all but the smallest improvements to parks and other charter properties.

The city went to court to challenge the referendum’s ambiguous wording, and Circuit Court Judge Laurie Buchanan struck down the ballot initiative immediately after polls closed.

Public records revealed 55 percent of Vero Beach voters had rejected it, anyway.

On Dec. 6, the City Council upheld the Planning & Zoning Board’s site plan approval for the boat-storage facility. On Jan. 11, the alliance filed its petition, which Metzger denied last week.

At the core of the alliance’s petition was its claim that the city violated its own code by using 21 off-site parking spaces to provide the 48 required for the larger boat-storage facility. The petition argued the off-site parking was 1,115 feet from the planned structure – more than double the 500 feet allowed under the code.

Vero Beach officials countered by citing a city ordinance that allowed them to waive the off-site parking restriction. The alliance, though, claimed the ordinance was “unconstitutional.”

The petition stated the applicable section of the code didn’t include any “criteria, factors, required findings or other standard” to govern that decision, thus giving the city “carte blanche to waive the parking rules at it complete, unfettered discretion, in obvious violation of Florida constitutional requirements.”

Turner and the alliance’s Plantation-based attorney, Richard Grosso, responded to each other others filings, then waited for Metzger’s ruling.

“They were asking the court to review the actions of a lower tribunal,” Turner said, explaining that the P&Z board was acting as a quasi-judicial body when it approved the site plan and the City Council was seated as an appellate panel when it upheld the board’s decision.

For the plan to be “quashed,” as the petition requested, Turner said the plaintiffs needed to show that the approval process denied them due process, the law wasn’t followed and resulted in a gross miscarriage of justice, or the city’s decision wasn’t supported by competent substantial evidence.

Metzger denied the petition without comment.

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