Wellington Village Council members met in a special session Monday morning to discuss the abandonment of the Lake Worth Road extension easement west of South Shore Blvd. after postponing the issue at last week’s regularly scheduled meeting.
Attorney Claudio Riedi said he had been asked to review correspondence between Daniel Rosenbaum, attorney for Wellington Equestrian Partners, and Village Attorney Laurie Cohen regarding the abandonment under state statute, and the mayor’s signed quit claim deed to clear the title.
“I believe [Cohen’s] statement is accurate, that the Lake Worth Road extension right of way was abandoned and as such did revert back to the successor and interest of the original grantor,” Riedi said. “I think it’s important to understand that the successor and interest can be a party several times removed.”
Riedi said Florida statutes state that a right of way that has been granted for a specific purpose that has not been used for that purpose, or stated in the comprehensive plan or general development plan for at least 60 months, is deemed abandoned.
Wellington Equestrian Partners has sent letters to Cohen asking that the village issue quit claim titles to clarify ownership.
“The issue then is what to do, and I think there are two options what will happen afterward,” Riedi said. “Either the community beneficiary of the right of way can do a quit claim deed to convey it back, or the party claiming the right of way can go to court and ask the judge to clear up the title to make it clear that there is no longer a right of way.”
Riedi said that in 2008, the Lake Worth Road extension was removed from Wellington’s comprehensive plan.
Vice Mayor John Greene asked Riedi whether there was a sense of urgency in calling a special meeting to address the question, and Riedi said he had spoken to Rosenbaum, who wanted it resolved as quickly as possible.
“There’s no actual deadline, there’s no legal deadline looming,” he said. “I do believe it’s appropriate to restate that this right of way was granted for one single purpose — the construction of the Lake Worth Road extension. There are no plans at this point to build Lake Worth Road. That land can lay fallow, unused, or it can go back to the developer.”
Greene said that village staff had made the council aware in January of the state statute requiring unused dedicated rights of way to revert to the property owner.
“I don’t think anyone is here disputing the terms of the statute,” he said. “That’s pretty clear. If it’s not used for its specific purpose within 60 consecutive months, the land does go back.”
However, he thought that there was a misconception that the council was giving away public land, and explained that the county had originally shown the Lake Worth Road extension as four lanes before Wellington incorporated, and that the right of way had been created by the county, which had taken the land for a future road, and that it was now reverting back to the owner.
“When we became a municipality, and it became a part of our comp plan, we all recognized that we don’t want that much traffic going through the equestrian preserve, and we removed it from our comp plan in 2008,” he said.
But Greene added that he did not understand why a special meeting had been called for that one subject. Also, he wanted to be sure that he had sufficient information to make a decision.
Greene said the equestrian portion of the 2014 comp plan showed a trail that runs along that portion of the road. Riedi said that Wellington would be able to use the land for one purpose only, to build a road and maintain it.
Councilwoman Anne Gerwig pointed out that the item had been on the council’s regular meeting agenda but had been postponed to get an additional legal opinion, which she did not think was necessary since Cohen had vetted her work with other attorneys.
“I didn’t see any reason for us to call this meeting, either,” Gerwig said. “It would have been fine for us to go forward with it at [the previous meeting].”
Gerwig asked whether there was a possibility of the village being required to pay damages if it were taken to court, and Riedi said that is unlikely.
Riedi said that the village has two options, either to issue a quit claim title or wait for the landowner to ask the court for a declaratory judgment of title, either of which would incur minor costs to the village.
Councilman Matt Willhite said the item had been postponed in order to make sure they had all the pertinent information. “There were still discussions going on to try and make this an amicable situation for everybody in the village,” Willhite said. “By everybody, I mean all interested parties, not to mention all people who utilize this road.”
Willhite asked if the right of way for the Lake Worth Road extension might be needed for future development, and Village Engineer Bill Riebe said the equestrian overlay currently prohibits four-lane roads.
Willhite noted that at a recent equestrian summit, a representative of the equestrian venues said that in order to support the venues in the future, the village could need to look at increasing the size of the roads.
“Are the taxpayers going to have to pay for that in the future?” Willhite asked. “If [so], how can we build a roadway if it’s not there?”
Riebe said village staff had looked at traffic projections and they would be small minus any significant new development.
“This road will function really at a service level,” he said, explaining that another road is planned to handle traffic coming to the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, as well as other road improvements to improve traffic circulation.
Willhite said he would like to see a better overall plan for future road development in that area. “I would like to see more of those plans definitively brought forward sooner than later,” he said.
Willhite also questioned the need to have had a special meeting. “I think we’re just wasting our time talking about it,” he said. “I don’t know that we needed to sit and talk about it again.”
Mayor Bob Margolis said he had called the meeting because a lot of misinformation had been circulated.
“I could have gone with staff’s recommendation and signed the quit claim deed, but I wanted to give you all an opportunity to weigh in on this discussion,” Margolis said, explaining that the item had been postponed because council members had met with interested parties in that area and had asked them if they could reach some sort of conclusion. “That didn’t happen, so… I wanted to give all of you an opportunity to weigh in.”
Councilman John McGovern asked Riedi what the basis was for his opinion other than Cohen’s report, and Riedi said he had reviewed Rosenbaum’s letter to the village, which had several attachments, including the actual deed from 1987 and the county zoning resolution, and was comfortable that the easement had been abandoned, although his quick review was not as thorough as Cohen’s.
Councilwoman Anne Gerwig said she appreciated Margolis’ wanting to hold a special meeting. “I understand that certain members of council felt they didn’t have enough information,” Gerwig said.
She asked Margolis if he had sought Riedi’s input, and Margolis said he had only asked for an outside opinion and did not know it would be Riedi.
Greene said he thought the item should be put back on a future agenda, and all interested parties would have time to have their questions answered, but was concerned that if the village executed a quit claim, legal challenges could be directed to the village.
Riedi said he did not foresee any legal challenges being brought against the village, although it was not out of the question.
Rosenbaum, on behalf of Wellington Equestrian Partners and Managing Partner Mark Bellissimo, said that under the Florida statute and other precedents, the village should issue a quit claim deed.
“The problem is it leaves us with a title defect, and that is unnecessary,” Rosenbaum said. “What we don’t want to do is to have to burden the taxpayers with the counsel, time and depositions and all those things with going through a lawsuit that isn’t necessary.”
Attorney Greg Kino, representing South Road Wellington, which owns property on the Lake Worth Road right of way, said his client had concerns about the village quit claiming the property because valuable consideration had not been taken into account, and the village would be granting the right of way without something in return. “We do not feel you should issue a quit claim deed,” Kino said. “If they’re so sure that they’re right, they don’t need to do quiet title.”
Gerwig said her understanding was that people in the equestrian overlay do not want more than two-lane roads.
Willhite said he would like Riedi to do a more complete analysis and see what the developer’s intent is to do with the right of way.
Greene asked Rosenbaum that his client not take further action until it is put on the council’s regular agenda for discussion.
Greene also asked if the village’s abandonment of the right of way would diminish the developer’s obligation to complete the alternate road, and Riedi said Cohen’s letter to the developer states emphatically that the developer still has the obligation to build the road.
Rosenbaum said it was his understanding that the road construction process was going forward. “It’s my understanding that the holdup was from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” he said.
Schofield said construction of the 40th Street right of way was not tied to the Country Place PUD, but to two Grand Prix Village South approvals.
“The owner of that is here,” Schofield said. “I suggest we simply ask him if it’s his intention to build 40th Street.”
Bellissimo said they were there for a quit claim process. He added that they planned to build 40th Street, but that had not yet been clearly defined. “We’re here to figure out if you’re going to honor the state law that exists today,” he said. “We’re here for a quit claim deed, and we will go through the process that we’ve been continuing to go through, but I think that process has been hijacked by other individuals.”
Bellissimo said it was their intention to fulfill the obligation to build 40th Street.
However, Bellissimo was concerned about other issues that may arise to incur additional expense to him.
“Are we going to build a $5 million road? No,” he said.
Riebe said the bond posted currently was $1.9 million, but the village still needs an updated cost estimate from the engineer of record because there were some things in the project that had not been included.
In the end, the majority of the council agreed that Margolis should go ahead and sign the quit claim deed but that the village must make sure that the alternate Lake Worth Road extension is built along 40th Street as promised.