Unhappy Trails

For the third time in five months, the fate of an abandoned golf course just west of Boca Raton goes before the Palm Beach County Commission. What happens today, though, could affect far more than just the former Mizner Trail Golf Club.

As in January and March, the owners of the roughly 128 acres—bounded by Southwest 18th Street, Military Trail and Camino Real—will ask the commission to approve residential development for what the four-decades-old Boca Del Mar master plan envisioned as open space. Commissioners postponed a decision at those earlier meetings, after which the landowners changed the plan. Today, they will tell the commission that they have worked out a plan the neighbors could live with.

Andre Parke, an attorney who represents some of those neighbors in Boca Del Mar, disagrees. Though the new proposal calls for 255 residential units, down from 288, Parke says the plan still would spread townhomes and apartments across what were fairways and would “take away views that property owners paid for and deserve.”

Since January, the landowners have tried to fit their project on the site in a way that would minimize its impact on those views. The latest plan, according to county staffers, would keep new housing at least 50 feet from the neighbors in most cases, with a 10-foot space for trees and other landscaping to hide the homes. The staff report, which strongly recommended rejection in January, now recommends approval, subject to 48 conditions the landowners must meet.

Parke, though, said this is not the suitable “compromise” county commissioners hoped the landowners and neighbors could reach. Boca Del Mar residents want the housing scattered around the edges of the property. Parke says the landowners “rejected this out of hand,” adding that anyone who considers the new plan a compromise “fails to understand this misses the point that the community has been struggling to make.”

The challenge for the developers to make their case is considerable. A judge ruled that there are no inherent development rights on what was approved in the early 1970s as open space, so the landowners base much of their argument on what in governmentese is called “changed circumstances.” The landowners contend that operating a golf course no longer is financially viable, so they should be allowed to build housing.

One theory, though, is that the landowners bought the property near the top of the market a decade ago and want the commission to bail them out of a bad investment. Some neighbors also suspect that the landowners intended all along to close the golf course.

Attorney Martin Perry, who represents the landowners, says such theories are wrong: “The reality is that the golf course was acquired to operate as a golf course,” but the market is saturated. He cites figures showing that roughly 150 courses nationwide close each year. Boca Del Mar, he said, has a population roughly that of North Palm Beach and still couldn’t support the course.

As for that court ruling, Mr. Perry interprets it differently. He also contends that one of the neighbors’ proposed alternatives—to scatter the homes around the edges of the property—simply would cluster apartments near other Boca Del Mar residents along Military Trail.

Perry, a longtime land-use lawyer, acknowledges that if commissioners approve development of Mizner Trail, the precedent could allow development of other golf courses and other open space. “It’s a troublesome issue,” he said. “It started in the 1990s, and it’s going to continue.” Commissioners certainly can’t pretend that the community supports the project. At the two hearings, 204 people spoke against the project while just 23 spoke in favor. Of the responses to a county mailing, nearly 1,300 were opposed and just 333 were in support.

Some neighbors have suggested that the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District could help buy or operate the property as a park, but the district’s interim director said Wednesday there is no interest in such a deal. So some commissioners may contend at today’s hearing that development is the only reasonable option and would improve what now are overgrown ex-fairways and greens and end “uncertainty” over the site. At this point, however, the neighbors overwhelmingly favor overgrown to developed. Granting development rights where none may exist—against the wishes of those living nearby—would create its own certainty of more such concessions.

Spinning the numbers

Wells Fargo’s new Florida Economic Outlook will give Gov. Rick Scott and Charlie Crist more to argue over.

Growth in Florida, the report said, is picking up, and the “mix of growth has evolved in a way that should produce much more (sic) economic gains well into the future. . .” Scott will use the report to say that he gets the credit. Crist will use the report to say that Florida simply is following the national pattern of improvement under President Barack Obama. In the report, though, are numbers that matter for South Floridians beyond the political talking points.

Job growth in Palm Beach County is up 2.5 percent from a year ago, less than in some parts of the state but healthy enough to generate hope for more. Tourism and business and professional services are the strongest areas. While construction is doing better, statewide it represents just 5 percent of all jobs. Before the recession, that figure reached 9 percent.

That high mark, though, was artificial. Too much construction during the boom was for homes to flip, not homes to live in. That turned a boom into a bubble, which burst. Historically, construction was about 7 percent of Florida’s employment. If we get back to that level, without homes being built for phantom residents, the real estate market will be sounder for the long term and closer to where we can say that the recovery in Florida is complete.

Paying up time

Friday will be Sheryl Steckler’s last day at Palm Beach County’s first inspector general. That occasion should make Boca Raton and Delray Beach look again at their participation in a lawsuit against the Office of Inspector General.

Boca, Delray and 12 other cities claim that the system for financing the office amounts to illegal double taxation of city residents. The Office of Inspector General is a county agency, the cities say, and the county can’t order cities to pay for a county agency unless the cities agree. Example: A city decides to contract with the county for law enforcement or fire rescue.

The county, though, did not order the cities to pay. Residents of all 38 cities did, through a referendum in November 2010. City residents asked for oversight from the inspector general and told city officials that their constituents wanted them to pay for it. Oversight of cities is separate from oversight by the county. The county already pays for its oversight.

The lawsuit prevented Steckler from staffing the office fully, but it did not prevent her from monitoring the cities effectively. One that benefited greatly was Delray Beach.

In 2012, the Office of Inspector General disputed the city’s assertion that it could extend a trash-hauling contract without bidding. That report helped the city win its challenge of the decision. The contract now is going out for bid; current city officials hope that Delray residents will save millions under a new deal. An inspector general’s report this year revealed that sloppy city purchasing rules allowed City Manager Louie Chapman to mislead the commission on a purchase of trash bins. The report could lead to Chapman’s firing. The commission should thank the Office of Inspector General by withdrawing from the lawsuit, which should go to trial in September.

West Palm Beach, which initiated the lawsuit and provided much of the early legal work, has been the city most resistant to the inspector general. Right behind, though, has been Boca, at least under former Mayor Susan Whelchel. In 2011, she called it “double taxation without representation,” overlooking, forgetting or ignoring that the people she represented told the city to pay, not the county. Last year, Whelchel said the inspector general and ethics commission are “controlled by the county.” In fact, both are independent. County commissioners do not appoint members of the ethics commission, which oversees the inspector general.

Since Boca Raton sometimes behaves like a self-governing kingdom of Palm Beach County, attitude alone might explain the resistance. But Palm Beach, which famously gripes about paying county and school taxes, has embraced the inspector general—perhaps because the town had its own corruption issue in the building department. Whatever the reason, the 14 cities come off as hostile to the agency that has done much to scrub off the “Corruption County” graffiti from a decade ago. As she departs, Steckler looks far better than those holdout cities do.

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You can email Randy Schultz at randy@bocamag.com

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About the Author

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.