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Is massive condo-hotel project in Pompano Beach based on a bogus permit?

A 2006 rendering of the original condo project (Courtesy: City of Pompano Beach)

For its next waterfront project in Pompano Beach, developer Related Group is city-approved for a 24-story condo-hotel on a prime vacant lot that currently serves as beach parking for residents. 

Now some of those residents are questioning whether the city’s approval of the project, which has a long and twisting 18-year history, is valid at all.

The project’s development order was approved by the city back in 2006, when the 3.7-acre property on N. Pompano Beach Blvd. was owned by a company called WCI. Since then the property has been bought and sold at least three times, and no one who originally worked on the permit in the planning and zoning department is still with the city.

Two years later, in 2008, the foundation permit expired due to construction inactivity. That should have also killed the development order that same year, according to city records provided to the Florida Trident by Pompano Beach Realtor Tara Christiansen, who lives in a condo next door to the site. 

Instead, those same records show Pompano Beach officials extended the development order based on a separate foundation permit issued for an entirely different lot located a block west of the actual property.

“My concern is that a development order being extended for 18 years seems extremely unusual,” said Christiansen, who spent weeks poring over permits, emails, and other city documents regarding the property. “It doesn’t make sense to me. This development order was extended through questionable tactics all while doing it under the radar.” 

Overhead view of the condo-hotel project’s centrally located site on a public parking lot on the north side of Atlantic Blvd. (Courtesy: City of Pompano Beach)

A lot has changed in the intervening years. The city’s population has grown, and so has traffic volume. Christiansen is calling for city officials to rescind the current development order and require Related Group and its partner, Aventura-based BH Group, to go through a public hearing process to obtain a new development order that requires parking and traffic studies, as well as environmental assessments, to determine if the beachfront neighborhood can sustain the impacts of another high-rise. A public hearing process would also put residents on notice that the condo-hotel project would take away the public beach parking. 

The Related Group meanwhile is moving full steam ahead with the condo-hotel project and recently obtained city approval to build a temporary sales center on the property, which Pompano Beach currently leases for public parking, city records show. 

“I am a real estate broker so I’m all for responsible development,” said Christiensen. “But we don’t want to take away the current public use residents have and a lot has changed since this development was first approved 18 years ago.” 

Craig Fadem, a condo board member for Seamonarch, the condominium where Christiansen lives, said the current scope of the project would severely impact access for garbage trucks to get to the building’s trash containers, among other problems. 

In addition, traffic has gotten so bad in the past 18 years he and his wife avoid driving on the weekends due to the congestion, he said. 

“When Tara found out about the issues with the permit, suddenly [city officials] didn’t want to talk to us anymore,” said Fadem. “The whole thing smells fishy to me.”

If there is a simple explanation for the apparently improper permit end-run, the city hasn’t provided it to Christiansen or the Trident. City officials have either not responded to questions or have not been able to explain how this permit could still be legal.

“I did not work for the City of Pompano Beach in 2008 and therefore I am unable to respond to your procedural questions regarding specific permits issued at that time,” wrote David Recor, the city’s development services director. “In fact, I do not believe any of the existing Planning and Zoning staff were employed by the City in 2008.” 

One Pompano Beach official who played a key role in the process remains employed there, however, and that person – City Attorney Mark Berman – hasn’t responded to numerous requests for comment. 

The Paper Trail 

On April 25, 2008, Berman, then assistant city attorney, sent an email to other city officials stating that the developer, then WCI, was amending the permit for the N. Pompano Beach Blvd. property. 

The foundation permit for the site was about to expire due to a “lack of continued construction and inspections,” city records show. Under the city code, the expiration of the foundation permit meant the development order would die with it and WCI would need to start over from scratch. 

But four days after Berman notified officials of an amendment to the permit, WCI obtained a new foundation permit for an unrelated property at 3301 E. Atlantic Blvd. That foundation permit was mysteriously used to keep the development order for N. Pompano Beach Blvd alive. 

Pompano Beach City Attorney Mark Berman

Berman, the one person at the city who would seem to have direct knowledge of how exactly that happened, not only failed to respond to the Trident but also refused to answer Christiansen’s questions.  

“He told me he represents the commissioners and the mayor,” she said. “He wanted to bat me away.” 

When Christiansen emailed Berman with questions about the permit’s timeline and extension, email tracking software she used showed that her message was opened more than 260 times, she said. 

“That is a lot of times if I’m not important,” said Christiansen.

The City Punts

Berman, who rose to the city’s top legal post in 2015, eventually referred Christiansen to Recor, the development services director who claimed ignorance of the process. He did not respond to two voice messages and three emails from the Trident requesting comment. Jon Paul Pérez, Related’s president, and Nicholas Pérez, Related Group’s condominium division president, also did not respond to email requests for comment. 

Pompano Beach spokesperson Sandra King also failed to provide an explanation, instead writing in an email that  “development orders, although they come with expiration dates, are extended for a variety of reasons (most of which come from executive orders from the governor’s office).”

City records in fact show the city, in November 2009, extended the development order based on an executive order from then-Gov. Charlie Crist that added two years to all permits statewide with expiration dates from Sept. 1, 2008 to Jan. 1, 2012. However, the foundation permit for N. Pompano Beach Blvd. would have expired almost six months prior to the receipt of the 2009 executive order.

Last year, Related and BH paid $47.5 million for N. Pompano Beach Blvd. and obtained the most recent extension of the development order, city records show. Christiansen believes the city can still reverse course and require Related and BH to obtain a new development order that would allow residents to provide  input. 

“I think the community has a right to know and a right to speak on the topic,” Christiansen said. 

Audrey Fesik, a resident who owns a single-family home near another planned beachfront condo project in Pompano Beach, agreed. 

“I think there needs to be more accountability in general,” said Fesik. “The project Tara is talking about is a great example of how these things get pushed and pushed along. No one in the city wants to get in the way of the developers.” 

The 2006 development order should be voided, Fesik added. “They should start from scratch,” she said. “There needs to be checks and balances in place.”

Add Christiansen: “The developers need to meet the new demands of the area. I expect the process to apply today’s standards and not the standards from two decades ago.”

About the author: Francisco Alvarado is an investigative journalist based in Miami whose work has appeared in The Daily Beast, The Guardian and The Washington Post.