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Our Town by William Kelly: Palm Beach may cap the number of restaurants, clubs and bars

Palm Beach officials are looking to limit the number of restaurants, bars and clubs on the island in hopes of easing traffic and parking congestion.

On Tuesday, the Town Council unanimously voted not to consider future development applications for bars, eateries and clubs for the next six months while it studies ways to limit the number of those establishments. The Planning and Zoning Commission will participate in the study.

The “zoning-in-progress” declaration is limited to the town’s five commercial districts and is in effect from now until the December 10 council meeting. It does not affect existing restaurants, bars and clubs or yet-to-open establishments that have been approved by the council. The declaration will not preclude council reviews of development applications already filed with the town.

Some council members said the town has reached a tipping point with traffic snarls and parking scarcity during the busy winter seasons months, and that it’s time to craft zoning rules that could give some relief to residents.

Town Council President Bobbie Lindsay said residents are telling her they don’t want Palm Beach to become a regional draw for visitors from neighboring West Palm Beach and elsewhere.

But there are no signs that commercial development pressures are easing. The Vineta Hotel is preparing to open at the former Chesterfield site in Midtown. Meanwhile, the long-delayed Palm House hotel on Royal Palm Way appears to be moving toward completion with plans for a Nobu restaurant to open at that location, Lindsay said. Other projects are in the pipeline.

“I’m worried that if we don’t address this now, we will regret it,” Lindsay said. “I think we’ve got to give this a good solid look and come up with some restrictions and say, ‘this is enough.’”

The council has been advised by its legal counsel that it can regulate the number of bars, eateries and clubs based on their location or the distance between them.

Town Attorney Joanne O’Connor said Miami and other municipalities have imposed such limitations. But she said it’s important to have data to support the restrictions if they are legally challenged.

Florida has laws protecting private property rights, including the Bert J. Harris Private Property Rights Protection Act. Under the 1995 law, property owners are entitled to compensation if they can demonstrate that a governmental action “inordinately burdens” their property.

If there were a challenge, the courts would look to see if there is a reasonable relationship between the town restrictions and protection of the public health and well-being, O’Connor said.

The town is already gathering data that could support the limitations.
A study of traffic and parking conditions from town consultant The Corradino Group was due for submission to the town on Tuesday, Zoning Director Wayne Bergman said.

There are roughly 9,900 patron seats in the restaurants, bars, lounges, nightclubs and private clubs in the town, Bergman said. That includes future establishments approved by the council or headed to it for review.

The 9,900 number exceeds the town’s 2020 census population of 9,245 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Council members Bridget Moran and Julie Araskog both expressed support for the zoning-in-progress declaration.
Araksog said the congestion is worse than the number of patron seats suggests. Town clubs and cultural institutions hold events that draw hundreds of people, and some bars are often packed beyond seating capacity.

“I think it’s time to do the zoning-in-progress … so we don’t get more [development applicants] in the pipe who say, ‘we don’t have to adhere to this,’” Araskog said.

Councilmen Lew Crampton and Ted Cooney both expressed reservations about the declaration.

Cooney said he wants to protect the town from becoming a regional destination but doesn’t want to stifle business interest. He said the zoning-in-progress, and related study on limiting the number of restaurants and other establishments, should not be allowed to drift beyond six months.

“I just want to make sure it’s managed right,” Cooney said. “Zoning-in-progress is a heavy-handed tool.”

Crampton said he supports the study, but any resulting action to limit the number of establishments must be legally defensible.
“This needs to be done very carefully in a very structured way,” he said. “Otherwise, we’re getting nothing from this.”

Mayor Danielle Moore said she was initially reluctant to support zoning-in-progress but warmed to the idea.

“We all have heard rumors of multiple things coming down the line, so I’m not sure zoning-in-progress is a bad thing,” she said.

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