Universal & Thomas tell judge 'dispute resolved' over land development rights

Universal Orlando and Georgia-based developer Stan Thomas were close enough to a private settlement on Wednesday to stop a court hearing mid-morning, indicating the path may soon be clear for up to two theme parks to be developed east of Universal Boulevard. 

Universal's lead attorney in the case, Michael J. Beaudine of Latham, Shuker, Eden & Beaudine, LLP, told the judge that "two large theme parks" could be developed on the land Universal owns, based on the entitlements and use conversion table available in the PD zoning's Land Use Plan. 

Attorneys for Universal's land-owner affiliate SLRC Holdings and Thomas Enterprisesaffiliate Universal City Property Management III (UCPM III) told Judge Julie H. O'Kane at the start of the morning hearing that their clients were negotiating, and an agreement could come at any time. 

The hearing had been postponed from Tuesday, when the judge was told both sides were "working toward a resolution." 

At 11:15 am, the attorneys stopped the hearing to tell the judge a settlement had been reached.

"We are very pleased that the parties have amicably resolved this matter," said Allison Turnbull, attorney with Gunster representing Thomas' UCPM III, told GrowthSpotter

What the settlement entails was not revealed. Any settlement agreement also would not take effect until it is recorded by the court, and possibly Orange County. 

Attorneys for both sides said during the hearing, and a short recess, that their clients were waiting on confirmation from escrow and title agents regarding the settlement. 

Thomas' UCPM III holds the sole authority as "Master Declarant," 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.

That includes the 480 contiguous acres Universal now owns south of Sand Lake Road, east of Universal Boulevard and north of Destination Parkway, separated only by drainage canals. 

It was unclear Wednesday 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 amend the declaration of covenants to give Universal affiliates permission to build theme parks. 

Universal's contiguous land mass is more than double the 209 acres that Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure occupy (not including back-of-house buildings, related hotels or Universal's CityWalk). SeaWorld Orlando's theme park covers about 196 acres.  

The company has another 37.1 acres on two isolated parcels fronting Universal Boulevard across from the Coca-Cola Orlando Eye, which could be connected to the mass by future water or road transportation. 

Weaving between those Universal affiliate properties and providing interconnectivity to all are another 174 gross acres owned by UCPM III.

The current injunction lawsuit Thomas filed in October 2016 attempted to block Universal from theme park development on the land without getting his permission. 

A title agency, which could also serve as escrow, could be charged with holding an executed document -- in this case an amendment to a declaration -- until money is transferred and both sides approve recording that document in the public record, according to local law firm Shutts & Bowen.

That "resolution," as Judge O'Kane called it, could be documented with the court as soon as today or Thursday, the attorneys told her. 

During the hearing, both sides presented on why the master declaration from 2000, and its four amendments and supplements made since, support their argument for who has the authority to approve theme park development on the property. 

Universal has not publicly confirmed any plans for a new theme park in Orlando, but that has not stopped bloggers and industry analysts from speculating on the company's game plan

Back in May 2016, Universal worked with Orange County planners to map out a subdistrict for its land in the International Drive District Development Code, and included a conceptual transportation link between its parcels which would run through Thomas-affiliate land, along what is currently a narrow drainage easement.

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.

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