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News - February 6, 2020

Get to Know Land Use & Governmental Attorney Thomas J. Baird

Thomas J. Baird, Land Use & Governmental Practice Group Co-Chair, is a Florida Bar Board Certified specialist in City, County, and Local Government Law, and is certified by the American Institute of Certified Planners as a land use planner.

We sat down with Tom to get a little more information about his background and his practice here at Jones Foster.

How do you describe your practice to non-attorneys?

A large part of my practice involves the representation of municipalities and other governmental entities. I currently serve as the Town Attorney for Jupiter and Lake Park and as General Counsel to their Community Redevelopment Agencies (CRA) and Palm Beach County’s Westgate/Belvedere Homes CRA, and I am the Special Magistrate for the municipalities of North Palm Beach and Stuart. 

As a result, I routinely work with the staff of these municipalities and agencies, advising them on a variety of legal issues, including employment law issues and the enforcement of laws by police and code enforcement officers. Much of my work for my municipalities is assisting their planning and zoning departments in managing new development, or the redevelopment of areas. I am responsible for creating the laws that elected officials deem appropriate, and for defending my municipal clients when lawsuits are filed against them. 

My practice also involves the representation of private clients, typically individuals or corporate property owners and developers who seek to develop or redevelop properties. I assist them with permitting or code enforcement legal issues with cities or counties, which may involve processing various applications such as site plans, and/or permits to secure development approvals. In addition, I regularly represent clients who have violated zoning or other development codes, and in those cases, I am responsible for appealing to, and negotiating with, government officials to minimize the fines that my clients may be facing.

Finally, typical litigation matters that I handle involve comprehensive planning cases, zoning appeals or disputes, eminent domain, property rights disputes, and constitutional takings.

How did you decide on your practice area?

I moved to Florida in 1978 to accept a fellowship from FAU in a master’s program that trained us to be managers of Florida’s emerging environmental and growth management laws. Following graduation, I accepted a job as a land use planner for a regional agency that was responsible for reviewing large scale developments known as Developments of Regional Impact (DRI) in the counties of Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie, and Indian River. Key residential projects I reviewed included Martin Downs in Martin County, and Frenchman’s Creek, the Bear’s Club, and PGA National in Palm Beach County. The non-residential projects I was involved with included The Gardens Mall, Vista Business Park, Motorola, and the expansion of the Palm Beach International Airport. 

My experience as a planner allowed me to learn the statutory laws and become familiar with local attorneys in this practice area. I soon realized that a law degree would complement my land use planning experience.

While in law school, I clerked for a national law firm based in Chicago. One of the senior partners happened to be the author of Florida’s most important growth management laws, including the creation of Water Management Districts, mandatory comprehensive planning for all cities and counties, and DRIs. This firm also defended cities and counties in complex constitutional takings cases, including those pursuant to 42 U.S.C § 1983. This experience was largely responsible for expanding my knowledge of Florida’s planning and zoning laws and provided a tutorial in defending complex land use law cases. Also during law school, I clerked for an attorney in Fort Lauderdale who represented developers exclusively. He hired me after I graduated, and consequently, I learned the private sector side of the business.

Later, I became an Assistant County Attorney and represented the Planning Building and Zoning Department, which included the Code Enforcement Division. After leaving the County Attorney’s Office I started my own practice, but within a year of doing so, I was appointed the Town Attorney of Jupiter in November of 1991. In my capacity as the Jupiter Town Attorney, I was responsible for preparing the Development Order for the Abacoa DRI that authorized the construction of more than 6,000 residences and the FAU Campus, and now includes Scripps Florida and the Max Plank Florida Institute for Neuroscience, Roger Dean Stadium, and the Abacoa Town Center. This Development Order was part of the revolutionary new urbanism planning movement that emerged in the United States, and essentially created a new town within the existing boundaries of the Town of Jupiter.

What are some important issues and trends for your clients?

For municipal clients, some of the more recent and unique issues have been to address the location of medical marijuana facilities, Sober Homes, and vacation rentals. The disclosure of public records is another important issue that our municipal clients frequently need to address, particularly those arising from high profile and celebrity-related cases in Jupiter, such as the arrests of Tony LaRussa, Tiger Woods, and Robert Kraft. 

In the last several years, the Florida Legislature has shown an increasing desire to restrict what cities can regulate. For example, the Legislature passed a law that would fine or jail local elected officials if they adopt local ordinances that attempt to regulate guns. Even with the Pulse Nightclub, Fort Lauderdale Airport, and Parkland tragedies, the Florida Legislature continues to restrict the ability of cities to address gun violence.

You have been an attorney at Jones Foster for 10 years, and before that, you had your own law firm for 20 years. What unique aspects of the Jones Foster culture attracts and retains so many preeminent attorneys?

Prior to joining Jones Foster, I knew many of the Firm’s lawyers from the perspective of opposing counsel. In various cases, I sat across the table from Scott Hawkins, Margaret Cooper, Adams Weaver, and Skip Randolph. Through my work as a municipal attorney, I came to know and greatly admire Skip Randolph, and eventually, I approached him about joining Jones Foster, and here I am.

Although these attorneys had been my opponents, it was evident to me that the professionalism of the individuals was uniquely ingrained in the Firm’s culture, and further enhanced by the presence of Harry Johnston and Sid Stubbs. The extraordinary standard they set is something that other Jones Foster lawyers have been fortunate to learn from and emulate. The Firm’s culture encourages its lawyers to participate in professional and civic associations, which provide a valuable support system that allows the reputation and influence of our attorneys to flourish. 

In addition to the experienced lawyers, I am encouraged by the next generation of lawyers at Jones Foster. The Associates are very smart and focused, and will help the Firm progress and adapt for the future. Another aspect of the Firm that contributes to its reputation and the ability of the attorneys to excel is the dedicated staff of legal assistant and paralegals, and the professionals in all of our departments across the board. I sincerely appreciate their support, which contributes to the Firm’s success and longevity.

What do you consider your key differentiators?

Work Ethic: I learned hard work from my parents, both of whom were raised in the coal mining area of West Virginia. My father spent his “college years” as a Marine in combat in the South Pacific and after the war, he worked at Ford Motor Company. My mother was the youngest of seven girls and grew up as a coal miner’s daughter. She eventually became a cosmetologist and owned her own business. Their work ethic, more than anything, shaped my brother and me. My brother is a doctor employed by the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, OH, one of the largest and most respected hospitals in the country.

Team Player (but still competitive): Sports have always been a driving force in my life. From an early age, I was competitive and as I became involved in team sports, I learned that being a good teammate was integral to a team’s success. Law firms can be viewed similarly to teams, in the sense that each individual has to do their job well, which in turn contributes to the overall success of the firm. Collaboration between lawyers in a firm is important to the overall success of achieving a client’s desired outcome. 

Education: I believe that education leads to success and that knowledge is power.

You have cultivated a long history of excellence and leadership throughout your career. What advice would give aspiring lawyers looking to establish themselves in the legal industry and the community?

  • Be a good listener. Don’t daydream or think about what you want to say next when someone is speaking to you. Understanding the thoughts, position, or argument of those speaking to you makes you better able to respond thoughtfully and responsively. People appreciate you more when they feel you are actively listening to them. Even if you disagree, they will believe that you respect their point of view. 
  • Work hard and finish the job. People and organizations compensate us well for our expertise and we owe it to them to be thorough, to complete our work in a timely fashion, and always give our best.

  • Staying physically active is important to your well-being. Take the time to push your body physically and your mind will benefit too.

  • As much as possible, treat everyone with respect. Sometimes it is challenging in this business, but when you treat a disagreeable person with respect, if nothing more, you will have the satisfaction of knowing you honorably addressed that individual as you do everyone else.

About Jones Foster

Jones Foster is a commercial and private client law firm headquartered in West Palm Beach, Florida. Established in 1924, the Firm has served as an integral part of South Florida’s growth and prosperity for nearly a century. Through a relentless pursuit of excellence, Jones Foster delivers original legal solutions that help clients, colleagues, and the community to move forward. The Firm’s attorneys focus their practice in Real Estate, Litigation & Dispute Resolution, Private Client Services, Corporate & Tax, and Land Use & Governmental. For more information, please visit www.jonesfoster.com.