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Lee Dobbins, shareholder in Dean Mead’s Fort Pierce office, guides clients through the real estate development and construction process from start to finish, just as he knows St. Lucie County and the surrounding region inside out. “I can take a client from due diligence for a piece of land, to getting it under contract, to closing, while handling things like site planning, utilities and concurrency issues,” Lee says. “Clients rely on me to get them through the permitting process with the city and the county, so that they can start on construction. I can do a lot of good for them on the front end – I know what they need to know going in and can help them enter into a contract that allows them to be certain that they can do what they want to do.”
Lee is originally from Ormond Beach, where he grew up, and first came to Dean Mead in 1995. After serving for a time as a named partner in his own firm in Fort Pierce, he returned to Dean Mead in 2008 and became a partner in the firm in 2010. Early in his practice the City of Port St. Lucie had taken over its utility system from St. Lucie County. Lee helped the city resolve land title and other issues with the properties acquired in that transaction. Lee also worked on the formation of the Okeechobee Utility Authority. At the same time he also represented agribusiness clients, both with refinancing and other issues regarding their properties and later represented them in land sales to developers. From that start, Lee today represents a wide range of property owners in the acquisition and development of land, including negotiating complex purchase contracts, due diligence, financing, title issues, closings and obtaining zoning and land use and site plan approvals from the local municipalities.
“Some of my clients are developers from out of state, and others are from South Florida; most are not located in St. Lucie County,” Lee explains. “My knowledge of local codes and local personalities is critical in helping them get through the approval process. I know the staff and elected officials, and am familiar with their hot button issues. I figure out where the issues and problems are before clients get too far down the road. Given the time I spend with staff and elected officials, I know many concerns that are important to them but that are not necessarily documented in the land development codes. I find out where there may be problems or simply issues that need addressing, and try to resolve those issues so the project can move forward.”
Extensive Project Range
The range of projects that Lee facilitates is extensive – everything from golf communities and other residential developments, to such specialized developments as a biotech research park, aggregates mines and manufacturing plants. “Every project is different, with a unique set of circumstances and challenges. You get the client from Point A to B through diplomacy, problem-solving and understanding the applicable codes. I have the breadth of knowledge and experience to understand their business objectives. The earlier clients get me involved in the process, the better off they usually are.”
Mixed-use developments are some of the most complex projects on which Lee works. One example involved a combination of commercial facilities, single and multi-family housing and institutional space for a school and municipal building. There were many interrelated elements that involved such concerns as:
• Planning for the increased traffic from both commercial and residential users.
• Laying out and providing rights-of-way for new roads to handle the traffic.
• Abandoning and relocating existing easements and rights-of-way.
• Preserving and mitigating wetlands.
• Providing utilities, including additional capacity for future development.
• Getting credits back from the utility for the extra capacity that was installed.
• School concurrency issues, such as negotiating payments to the local school district for the impact of new residents.
• Negotiating with the fire district, which had to build new capacity to service the development.
In such projects, as Lee notes, “What many of the issues boil down to is integrating the development into the existing infrastructure and addressing the impacts and concerns raised by government staff.”
Skillful Business Relocation
St. Lucie County is an attractive area for business relocation, and Lee’s involvement with the St. Lucie County Chamber of Commerce (including as past President) and the St. Lucie County Economic Development Council as one of its founders, have given him a working knowledge of the local and state economic development and job growth incentive programs. “I’ve helped a number of companies that have relocated here to apply for and obtain state and county grants, tax breaks and exemptions,” Lee says. An example was a major food processing plant for which he secured not only real estate approvals, but also a state tax incentive for new employees hired.
For companies relocating from out of state, Lee’s local knowledge can be invaluable. Several years ago, he recalls, “I had a company contact me to get approval for a plant site. I asked them, ‘Does it have to be right where you’re targeting? If you go across the street, you will be in a different municipality that has a faster process for this type of approval and better utility access.’ I used my local knowledge and was able to point them in a better direction.”
Handling Market Challenges
In the challenging real estate market conditions of the last few years, Lee has helped clients extend their approvals for developments. “Their projects are coming to market slower than they planned and approvals are expensive to maintain after a few years,” he notes “I help them extend the approvals and deadlines so they can push the construction date further out, but not lose their applications. That sometimes requires getting the cooperation of the municipalities and staff, so I need to use my contacts there.” Lee has also helped a number of clients take advantage of various state legislation which provides for the right to extend the expiration date of certain qualifying permits and approvals.
Also reflecting today’s current market conditions, Lee has represented banks that have taken over development projects. One was a large mixed use development that was planned for residential, commercial and hotel use – but the developer had not obtained all of the necessary approvals. “The bank had to figure out what to do with it,” Lee says now. “There were a lot of issues to resolve – which approvals should we get, which should we not bother with. I had to approach it on the basis of triage. I told the bank that they should not seek approval of the site plan – it provided for too much residential development that wouldn’t get built anytime soon. But I also advised them to extend the other approvals because they would be valuable to whoever ultimately bought the property.”
Involvement in the Community
One important aspect of Lee’s intimate knowledge of the Treasure Coast market is his involvement in community activities. “It’s important that I be plugged in to the community and that I give something back,” he says. Lee was president of the St. Lucie Chamber of Commerce in 2002-2003 and before that he had headed the Economic Development Division of the Chamber, giving him a broad background and knowledge of county government and business. He also set up the county’s Foreign Trade Zone. He also has served as a board member of the St. Lucie County Council on Aging, and the St. Lucie County Education Foundation. Reflecting his knowledge of and contacts in the wider community, Gulfstream Bank has asked him to serve on its Advisory Board for St. Lucie County to help offer guidance on community needs and business opportunities.
Fort Pierce, Port St. Lucie and St. Lucie County have been called the Treasure Coast not only for the Spanish gold found here, but also for the many opportunities that the area offers to families and businesses here. Lee Dobbins is proud to help make those opportunities a reality for his clients. “I have one job above all else,” Lee states simply: “Work to bring all parties together for a successful project.” It’s what he does, and does well, for Dean Mead clients every day.