Updated April 12, 2006
On the afternoon of February 14, 2006, the Palm Beach County Commission voted 4 to 3 to relocate the proposed Scripps Biomedical Research Institute from the remote Mecca Farms site to the Briger/Abacoa site favored by 1000 Friends and other smart growth advocates. “We commend the Commission for its wise decision,” notes Executive Director Charles Pattison.
“We truly believe this site–closer to existing development and infrastructure–makes the most sense for everyone involved.” Pattison explains that 1000 Friends pledges to work with Scripps, the County and other parties to make the Abacoa/Briger campus a model of smart growth. “We also commit to work with the county to find an appropriate use for the Mecca Farms site.”
1000 Friends and others had filed a series of lawsuits to block the development of Scripps on the 2000-acre Mecca Farms site. 1000 Friends contended that development the size of downtown West Palm Beach was totally inappropriate on the fringes of the Everglades. Such remote sprawling development would undermine both the local and state comprehensive planning processes, and harm restoration efforts for the Everglades and the Loxahatchee River. However, throughout the debate 1000 Friends committed to supporting an appropriate alternative location in Palm Beach County. Of all the alternative sites proposed, 1000 Friends was steadfast in its support for the Abacoa/Briger site.
1000 Friends thanks its many partners in this endeavor, including the Florida Wildlife Federation, Jupiter Farms Environmental Council, Loxahatchee River Coalition, Audubon Society of the Everglades, Maria Wise-Miller, and the Environmental and Land Use Law Center.
Since April of 2004, 1000 Friends has played a leading role in the effort to relocate the proposed Palm Beach County campus of the Scripps Research Institute from the remote Mecca Farms site to a more appropriate location. Mecca Farms drew opposition for a variety of reasons. “This site contradicts every sound planning, land use and environmental principle on which Florida’s Growth Management Act is based,” said Charles Pattison of 1000 Friends. It would necessitate numerous changes to the county’s comprehensive plan, zoning ordinances, and the regional policy plan, some of which will be open to legal challenge.
Noted conservationist and 1000 Friends Board Member Nathaniel Reed called the decision to locate Scripps at Mecca Farms “… the worst abuse I have ever seen of Florida’s1985 Growth Management Act.” He continued, “It is my opinion that the selection of the Mecca Site and the development of adjacent lands will torpedo both Palm Beach County’s comprehensive plan and the state’s comprehensive planning process.”
Joanne Davis, a Community Planner with 1000 Friends’ Palm Beach County Office, called the idea of placing a development the size of downtown West Palm Beach beside the Everglades “simply outrageous.” Noting that three other major developments in the area were pending, she did not believe that the county could realistically expect to control growth in this area if the Scripps approvals stood. “They are turning their backs on 25 years of sound planning to do this,” said Davis.
Rising costs associated with the Mecca site and pressure from residents, 1000 Friends, and others, finally convinced the Palm Beach County Commission to seriously explore two more appropriate sites in eastern Palm Beach County, adjacent to Interstate 95. However, on October 13, 2004, the Palm Beach County Commission approved six amendments to its comprehensive plan, approved a development order for a Development of Regional Impact for the project, rezoned the Mecca Farms property and a portion of the Corbett Wildlife Refuge, and approved changes to its Unified Land Development Code to authorize the project.
1000 Friends Files Challenges to Scripps Zoning Changes
Circuit Court Challenges–On November 22, 2004, 1000 Friends of Florida filed two complaints in circuit court challenging the development orders approved by Palm Beach County to authorize development of the Mecca Farms site for the proposed Scripps Biomedical Institute in Palm Beach County. Charles Pattison, Executive Director of 1000 Friends, said, “These actions are necessary in order to protect citizens, taxpayers, the environment, and a rural lifestyle from irreversible, harmful impacts from this project.”
Pattison noted numerous problems with the recently adopted approvals, exceptions, amendments, and special approvals made by Palm Beach County to its award winning comprehensive plan and land development regulations. The first complaint alleged the development orders issued by Palm Beach County were inconsistent with Palm Beach County’s Comprehensive Plan and constituted contract zoning. In the summer of 2005, the judge ordered Palm Beach County, Scripps and 1000 Friends to enter into mediation to try to reach resolution. The mediation, held in late 2005, was not successful.
The second complaint alleged that the Palm Beach County Commission failed to act as an impartial decision-maker in considering the development orders and that the orders were not supported by competent substantial evidence. In June of 2005, the judge ruled against 1000 Friends. 1000 Friends did not appeal becaue a favorable ruling probably would not have resulted in the relocation of Scripps to a more appropriate site.
1000 Friends had a series of major concerns regarding the location of the Scripps project on Mecca Farms, including the failure to protect rural and environmentally sensitive areas, including the federally designated wild and scenic Loxahatchee River, urban sprawl that opens up to development some of the last remaining rural areas in the county, and more than 30 roadway exceptions that allow for more traffic than area roads can accommodate even when they are expanded and improved.
Not only did the magnitudes of these changes demonstrate why the Mecca Farms site was inappropriate, but the proposed changes would render the county’s plan virtually meaningless, according to Pattison.
Janet Bowman, Legal Director for 1000 Friends, called the challenges critical to the future of growth management in Florida. Bowman says this case underscores the need to have an appeals process that can hold state and local governments accountable for land use decisions.
The Florida Wildlife Federation, Loxahatchee River Coalition, and two individuals joined 1000 Friends in these two challenges. 1000 Friends and its partners were represented by the Nova University’s Environmental and Land Use Law Center.
Administrative Challenge–On December 10, 2004, 1000 Friends of Florida, the Florida Wildlife Federation, Audubon Society of the Everglades, Loxahatchee River Coalition, and Maria Wise-Miller filed suit at the Florida Department of Community Affairs to block the proposed siting of Scripps Research at a far-flung location at the edge of the Everglades in Palm Beach County. The Environmental and Land Use Law Center served as counsel.
Specifically, the complaint cited:
- The county concluded that no alternative sites existed, when there are alternative sites available, including the Briger tract, near the Florida Atlantic University Abacoa campus, and Parcel 19, inside the town of Jupiter.
- The county has violated the requirements for traffic concurrency–which is supposed to make sure there is enough road capacity for new development. The county is also setting a precedent for other private developers to exploit.
- The county has improperly located electricity infrastructure for Scripps on land within a wildlife management area, setting a dangerous precedent for swapping conservation lands for development.
- The Mecca Farms location for the Scripps project is inconsistent with the Urban Sprawl Rule, Florida Administrative Code, Rule 9J-5. Rule 9J-5.006(5)(g)8. That law lists as an indicator of sprawl any comprehensive plan amendment which “Allows for land use patterns or timing which disproportionately increase the cost in time, money and energy, of providing and maintaining facilities and services, including roads, potable water, sanitary sewer, stormwater management, law enforcement, education, health care, fire and emergency response, and general government.
- The Mecca Farms site is also inconsistent with 9J-5.006(5)(g)2, which prohibits a land-use change that “Promotes, allows or designates significant amounts of urban development to occur in rural areas at substantial distances from existing urban areas while leaping over undeveloped lands which are available and suitable for development.
On April 28, 2005, the Division of Administrative Hearings ruled against 1000 Friends. In July of 2005, 1000 Friends filed its Initial Brief challenging the ruling. Early in October, the Fourth District Court of Appeal heard oral arguments. Because of the ruling on the environmental challenge (see below) and the county’s decision to relocate Scripps, the appeals court did not issue a final ruling.
Environmental Challenge–In 2005, the Florida Wildlife Federation and Sierra Club brought an environmental challenge regarding the development of Mecca Farms. Once again, the Environmental and Land Use Law Center served as counsel. Judge Middlebrooks of the U.S. District Court ruled in late September of 2005 that it was inappropriate for the Army Corps of Enginners to review and approve a permit for only a 535-acre segment of the almost 2,000-acre Mecca Farms site. He issued his final ruling in November, allowing development to proceed on only a small portion of the 535-acre tract, and requiring a more extensive Environmental Impact Statement be prepared on the full project. In effect, this halted the project for at least two years, promting Palm Beach County to decide to search for an alternative site.
The Mecca Farms Site
In the fall of 2003, Palm Beach County and the State of Florida committed more than $500 million to bring a branch of the Scripps Research Institute to Palm Beach County. Scripps, the well-respected biomedical research facility based in LaJolla, California, and the county and state all contended that luring it to the area would create thousands of high-paying jobs.
The Business Development Board of Palm Beach County secured an option on the 2000-acre Mecca Farms site. As planning for the Scripps campus proceeded, environmental issues surfaced early on. Located in a remote, rural area in the federally designated Wild and Scenic Loxahatchee River’s headwaters, Mecca Farms is surrounded on three sides by environmentally sensitive lands. The site is in the Rural Tier in the county’s comprehensive plan. Further complicating matters, another major 2000-acre development was proposed for the adjoining Vavrus land, also secured by a Business Development Board option, which has been on the county’s environmentally sensitive lands acquisition list since 1991.
The initial transportation plans were unveiled in early June of 2004. Because no intense growth was foreseen for this remote area of the county, it lacked virtually all infrastructure necessary to support the proposed development. The scale of development proposed on the two properties involved some 9500 homes, 13 million square feet of research space, a hospital, university, high school, extensive commercial space, and more. Early estimates projected road widenings and other transportation improvements that would cost taxpayers a staggering $500 million, and even then, county planners admitted that the result would be clogged roads!
To accommodate such intense growth—on a scale never contemplated prior to the coming of Scripps—would require extensive modifications to comprehensive plans and zoning codes. Making matters worse, some of these planning modifications would be applicable throughout the county, with untold ramifications.
Despite these caveats, planning for the Mecca site was proceeding, and in June, the Commission transmitted its proposed comprehensive plan amendments to the Florida Department of Community Affairs for review. At the same time, 1000 Friends submitted to the county and DCA a series of concerns on the proposed amendments. In July, DCA confirmed its intent to approve the proposed DRI development, with some conditions related to affordable housing, traffic, and mix of uses.
In mid-August, the South Florida Water Management District issued the necessary permits for Mecca Farms, indicating that the biotech park would not harm efforts to restore the Everglades or the Loxahatchee River. In the first of numerous anticipated challenges, the Palm Beach County Environmental Coalition filed suit to reverse the permit, and may be joined by other groups shortly.
In late August, the Governor and Cabinet met to swap land in the J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area, to allow Florida Power and Light to use 6.5 acres for an electrical substation for Scripps. 1000 Friends, Florida Wildlife Federation, The Nature Conservancy, and Florida Audubon opposed the swap, and the Governor and Cabinet agreed to rescind the swap if Mecca was not ultimately used for Scripps.
The County Commission began hearings on zoning changes needed for the Mecca site on September 20, 2004. 1000 Friends attended, among other issues noting that it was premature to begin the rezoning process before the changes to the comprehensive plan are legally adopted. On October 13, 2004, the county commission approved changes to the Palm Beach County Comprehensive Plan and land development regulations in an effort to move the project forward. On November 22, 2004, 1000 filed two legal challenges, and filed a third December 10, 2004.
Early in the process, 1000 Friends of Florida began raising serious questions about the Mecca Farms site. We quickly joined forces with the Environmental and Land Use Law Center, Florida Wildlife Federation, Florida Audubon, and others to call for some consideration of alternatives. The Everglades Coalition, comprising 44 organizations, unanimously voted to oppose the Mecca Farms site. 1000 Friends has submitted op eds and letters to the editor on the issue, and remains in close contact with reporters covering the issue.
In late June of 2004, while planning for Mecca Farms proceeded, the Palm Beach County Commission agreed to evaluate five alternative sites for Scripps, some with considerably less impact on traffic and the environment. Besides Mecca Farms, the sites included the Briger Tract next to Abacoa in Palm Beach Gardens; Parcel 19 in Jupiter; Riviera Beach; and Florida Crystals Corporation property in the Everglades Agricultural Area. The county retained the respected developer Nader Salour to prepare an analysis of the alternatives.
On August 10, 2004, 1000 Friends held a well-attended community forum to discuss the five alternatives. Around the same time, a newly organized group called the Horizons Coalition of Palm Beach County, funded primarily by two biotech park developers, launched a high-powered media blitz supporting the Mecca Farms site. County commissioners were deluged with phone calls.
On August 17, 2004, the County Commission met and agreed to send a letter to the Scripps Board of Directors asking if they would consider the Briger Tract or Parcel 19 as alternatives. Representing the state, both Governor Bush and incoming Senate President Tom Lee confirmed that they would be willing to accept one of these alternative sites, should Scripps indicate an interest in relocating. 1000 Friends sent letters to both Governor Bush and Senator Lee indicating its willingness to assist with any legal issues surrounding selecting an alternative site. Additionally, 1000 Friends, Environmental and Land Use Law Center, Florida Wildlife Federation, and Audubon of Florida wrote to Scripps’ Board of Directors, asking for their favorable consideration of one of the two alternative sites.
Scripps met on September 13, 2004, and sent a letter to the County Commission confirming its commitment to the Mecca Farms site. Despite the pending lawsuits, the county decided to proceed with development at Mecca Farms.
Groundbreaking for the Mecca Farms site took place a little more than a year later, in late September of 2005. However, a U.S. District Court final ruling in November of 2005, requiring further environmental analysis of the full Mecca Farms site, convinced the county and others of the need to search for an alternative site.
Several sites were in the running once again. In addition to the desire by some to keep Mecca Farms as the site, other sites included the Abacoa/Briger tract favored by smart growth advocates, and the Florida Park of Commerce site, in northwestern Palm Beach County. Late in the process, a proposal for Boca Raton was added to the mix. On February 13, 2006, Governor Bush indicated his support for the Boca Raton site. However, the next day the Palm Beach County Commission voted 4 to 3 in favor of the Abacoa/Briger site.