Universal & Thomas negotiations postpone court date over land development rights

Universal Orlando was negotiating a deal Tuesday with Georgia-based developer Stan Thomas that could pave the way for the company to develop 480 contiguous acres it owns east of Universal Boulevard for amusement parks, and add value to Thomas' remaining land in the tourism corridor. 

Universal's land-owner affiliate SLRC Holdings and Thomas Enterprisesaffiliate Universal City Property Management III (UCPM III) each had motions for summary judgment scheduled for a hearing Tuesday afternoon in Orange County's Ninth Circuit Court. 

But that morning, they asked Judge Julie H. O'Kane to postpone the hearing until Wednesday because the two sides were "working toward a resolution," the judge told GrowthSpotter

The motions stem from an injunction lawsuit Thomas filed in October 2016, which has blocked Universal from theme park development on the 480 contiguous acres it now owns south of Sand Lake Road, east of Universal Boulevard and north of Destination Parkway, separated only by drainage canals. 

Thomas' UCPM III holds the sole authority, from a private covenants perspective, to approve development plans on more than 2,126 acres that fall within the Universal Boulevard Planned Development zoning area.

Officials and attorneys for both sides did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.  

Back in 2003, Thomas purchased the UCPM III corporate entity from then-Vivendi Universal, which came with 1,800 acres it owned. That included the "Master Declarant" rights, which UCPM III holds to enforce covenants and rules of the PD. 

When Universal sold those rights to Thomas, they included a rule that no other "entertainment/theme park" uses could be built there without the master declarant's sole permission. It was meant to protect Universal's two existing theme parks from competition. 

Since then, UCPM III has turned away multiple entertainment developers that have pursued the property.

Thomas' affiliate lost 474 acres of this land in lieu of foreclosure in August 2014 to Colony Capital, which Universal later bought in December 2015. But Thomas retained the master declarant role because the Master Declaration was not amended. 

It was unclear Tuesday if the agreement being negotiated would involve UCPM III selling the master declarant role outright to a Universal affiliate, or Thomas retaining that role but agreeing to approve Universal's future theme park plans. 

Thomas stands to gain from Universal developing a successful theme park on the property, as various affiliates of his still own more than 862 acres in the tourist corridor. 

Universal has argued over the past 18 months that public land use entitlements take priority over private title restrictions. But the company's argument isn't supported by real property law, and Orange County has an ordinance in its Land Development Code that affirms deference to private title restrictions.

Universal has taken steps in the past three months to prepare parts of this land mass for future development.

In early February, it filed a Development Plan with Orange County to build more than 644,000 square feet of office and industrial space on 101 acres along W. Sand Lake Road it bought last October.  

And on March 12, Universal's SLRC Holdings filed mass grading plans with the South Florida Water Management District for roughly 330 contiguous acres it owns east of Universal Boulevard and south of Sand Lake Road, which fall within two established environmental resource permits.

The mass grading and changes to the permits are for the interim only, until a revised master plan is submitted in the future that shows Universal's entire detailed plan for the property.  

Separately, Thomas has been facing a foreclosure claim since mid-October on 82 acres around the Orange County Convention Center, GrowthSpotter reported Dec. 7. Some of that lies in strategic position to Universal Orlando's land assets. 

Thomas started in Georgia real estate development in the early 1980s, and became a leading developer during that decade of retail power centers across the southeast United States. 

The developer also faces foreclosure suits in Dallas and Tennessee for large mixed-use development projects after defaulting on payments to lenders.

In Dallas, two lenders that provided more than $130 million for the 175-acre Wade Park project planned by a Thomas affiliate have scheduled a foreclosure date for three consecutive months, with the latest rescheduling set for early May as they negotiate and Thomas' company tries to obtain new funding, the Dallas Morning News reported Monday.

Have a tip about Central Florida development? Contact me at bmoser@growthspotter.com, (407) 420-5685 or @bobmoser333. Follow GrowthSpotter on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Copyright © 2018, GrowthSpotter
51°