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Court says Boca Raton violated public records law as developer aimed for beachfront project

A court says the City of Boca Raton violated public records law in a legal conflict between the city and a developer to build on oceanfront land between State Road A1A and the Atlantic Ocean.
Carline Jean / ֱ
A court says the City of Boca Raton violated public records law in a legal conflict between the city and a developer to build on oceanfront land between State Road A1A and the Atlantic Ocean.
Abigail Hasebroock, ֱ reporter. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida ֱ)
PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

A yearslong clash between Boca Raton and a developer has resulted in a judge ruling that the city failed to properly fulfill public records requests.

The requests were made by Azure Development LLC, the entity behind an endeavor to build on a parcel of land at 2600 N. Ocean Blvd., which is on the east side of State Road A1A. The battle for public records began after Azure argued it faced resistance from city officials.

And now, as the city faces the legal outcome, Azure says it intends to still pursue a building plan.

A legal battle

Azure filed an initial complaint in March 2019, accusing the city of refusing to provide certain public records the developer had requested, which included a litany of emails, text messages, social media messages and other communications involving city officials’ discussions about the beachfront property and general development of houses on Boca Raton’s coast.

Azure then filed an amended complaint in February 2022, to which the final judgment was in response.

Robert Sweetapple and Joanne O’Connor served as attorneys for Azure Development LLC in the case. Sweetapple told the South Florida ֱ they believed not all public records pertaining to the requested city business matters were provided to Azure. “When you want to find out what they did, you can’t,” he said.

Sweetapple said a records request, placed in 2018, was made in preparation of city hearings where Azure pitched plans about building on the beachfront.

Public outcry followed at the possible notion of harming the plants and animals, such as sea turtles roaming the area, as well as disrupting a rare stretch of undeveloped land.

The city had probed into the possibility of acquiring the plots of land at 2600 and 2500 N. Ocean Blvd. in 2015, but when the appraisals came back at $13.2 million, the cost was deemed too high, according to past news articles.

On Tuesday, a spokesperson for Boca Raton, Anne Marie Connelly, wrote in an email to the ֱ the city had received the final order and is currently reviewing it, but did not have any more information or comment.

The final judgment

In addition to Azure’s 2018 request for records, it also made two additional requests, the second in 2018 and the third in 2019. The third request was determined not to be an issue in the case, however.

In court documents, Azure contended some records fitting into those parameters were released only after the city denied having them, and some requested records were deleted.

“The documents I got were just very minimal and made me suspicious,” Sweetapple said.

An example of some communications released to Azure after it pursued more information included Facebook Messenger conversations between a former Boca Raton deputy mayor and a former Environmental Advisory Board member, who were not named as defendants in the case.

In August 2017, the former deputy mayor wrote to the EAB member: “I’d expect it to be a no unless there is absolutely no legal way we can vote no on it. and even then..prob still a no. We don’t need any more big private residences on our beach, our beaches makes us special.”

Azure received more Facebook Messenger conversations from the city in May 2022, which the developer believed to be “entirely unreasonable” given the original request for communications of that nature had been made about four years prior.

In court documents, lawyers for the city stated “there was absolutely no evidence that the few records not produced until after suit was filed were the result of the city ‘withholding’ production.”

“On the contrary, the undisputed evidence was that those few documents were inadvertently missed despite the city’s monumental and repeated efforts to locate documents in response to Azure’s broad requests,” the city’s lawyers stated.

The Public Records Act establishes “reasonable” and “good faith” standards for the production of records, which the city far exceeded in its efforts, they argued.

Ultimately, the court found the city “unlawfully withheld” and “unreasonably delayed” the production of “numerous crucial, material records to Azure” in the final judgment on Feb. 1

“The city’s unreasonable failures to search and unjustified delays in producing records responsive to Azure’s requests until well after the need for them had passed were established,” the judgment states.

The court found no issue with the city’s overall effort to respond to Azure’s first and second public records request, which resulted in about 500,000 pages of information.

But the court did find that the 42 documents produced after Azure filed the lawsuit along with the records that could not be produced were “damning to the city at the time.”

The city did not purposefully withhold records, the court found, but the response to the records requests were “late” and “untimely.” The court did not find “the city to be in bad faith,” however.

“We’re going to be asking the courts to require the city to go back and obtain all of their records from all former employees and officials,” Sweetapple told the ֱ. “Because their pervasive use of texts and emails and social media to run the government, all these records should be available to the public.”

Azure is also working to advance an application with the city for a single-family home on the 2600 property, Sweetapple said.

“We’re hopeful that that’s going to result in staff approving a home that is satisfactory to everyone,” he said.

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