Sunday, August 14, 2022

A New Deal for West Delray, More on the Candidates and Other News of Note

Everything about Wednesday night’s discussion in Delray Beach was the same—except the outcome.

The subject was the roughly six acres of city-owned land on three blocks east of the Fairfield Inn. Mayor Shelly Petrolia was ready to give failed developer Equity Enterprises another chance, as she had been during the previous discussions in May and July.

Minority residents of the northwest and southwest neighborhoods showed up to oppose selling to Equity, as they did in May and July. These were the residents Petrolia claimed to be helping by pushing the Equity deal. Petrolia said the company could build something faster because of existing approvals from its failed, 2013-16 attempt.

In May and July, the CRA had gone with Equity, 5-2. Petrolia and commissioners Adam Frankel and Shirley Johnson had backed Equity. So had appointed members Pamela Brinson and Angeleta Gray. Commissioners Bill Bathurst and Ryan Boylston wanted to reopen the bidding for the site.

This time, however, Johnson withdrew her support after reading a long statement. Then Brinson switched. Bathurst and Boylston remained opposed to Equity, which lost 4-3 with Petrolia, Frankel and Gray in the minority.

What happened? Residents complained about the price. Equity would have paid $2 million for land assessed at nearly $16 million. But the numbers had been mostly the same all along. This time, critics wore T-shirts. But a fashion statement alone wouldn’t change minds.

In an email, Johnson said, “This development was not the right fit for the city nor for the NW/SW community as presented to us in their proposed contract. I wanted to afford (Equity) the opportunity to correct all the items that had been discussed as ‘needs.’ They were unable to do so.” Johnson added, “On to the next (Request for Proposal) for this land. I will work hard to see that we do not repeat the same errors up front.”

Bathurst argued ßthat Equity’s proposal was “not what we would do there now.” The proposal dates to late 2013, when the appointed CRA chose Equity, overruling the staff recommendation. Boylston said choosing Equity would mean accepting “lower standards” for West Atlantic Avenue than the city would accept on the east side. Delray Beach has updated its land-use regulations since 2013.

“I didn’t love the functionality” of the project, Bathurst told me. He notes that the city has been seeking the “café-style” feel of East Atlantic Avenue. At 160 feet, however, West Atlantic is twice as wide.

Uptown Delray rendering

So Bathurst wonders if the project could seek that “human scale” more on Northwest Sixth Avenue, around the corner from Atlantic. He also said a new design could “push the commercial development” closer to Northwest Fifth Avenue, which he called the area’s historic commercial area. He also disputed Equity’s argument that critics were asking for a Delray “Disneyland.”

Though Petrolia said seeking bids could delay groundbreaking for up to three years, Boylston wants a timetable of no more than 18 months.

“I know it’s possible,” he said. “I’ve seen other cities do it.” He would like the CRA to make its choice in four months.

Bidders will have 45 days to respond to the CRA’s new Request for Proposal. Six companies sent letters of interest even as the CRA worked with Equity on a purchase agreement. Boylston expects “10 or 12” responses.

“I think they’re going to be incredible.”

Bathurst also supports a stepped-up schedule. He and Boylston want City Manager Mark Lauzier to form a special team for the project. Bathurst said, “This is not like a guy putting an addition onto his bedroom.”

Petrolia tried to improve the purchase agreement. The price went from $1.2 million to $2 million. But half of that extra $800,000 would have gone back to Equity. The company could have gotten out of the requirement for a grocery store after two years. It appeared that the city wouldn’t have been able to buy back that portion of the site if the grocer and Flynn couldn’t agree. Equity’s principal, John Flynn, didn’t even attend the meeting.

Delray Beach still wants these six acres to drive redevelopment of The Set. If the residents were willing to wait a little longer, the city should try to make the wait for a great project as short as possible.

Sober Homes

There’s an interesting sober home item on tonight’s Delray Beach City Commission agenda.

The operator of a home at 602 SE 3rd Ave. wants a conditional use permit. The home, called Stepping Stones, needs the permit because it is within 660 feet of two other sober homes, and the city’s new regulation prohibits new “community residences”—the category of housing—within that distance.

But under the rules, existing homes were allowed to keep operating. Stepping Stones, however, does not have certification from the Florida Association of Recovery Residences, the industry trade group. The association has worked with Delray Beach on regulations. If Stepping Stones didn’t get that certification, for which it has applied, the home couldn’t operate.

City planners recommend that the commission grant conditional use approval for Stepping Stones. In its report to the planning and zoning board, the staff said, “Stepping Stones is compatible with the surrounding neighborhood; meets all of the required findings/standards for a conditional use for a community residence.”

Yet by a 4-1 vote, the board recommended that the commission deny approval. Opposition is high among residents of the Osceola Park neighborhood. In an email, one woman said, “The residents of these facilities spend a fair amount of time on our streets and in our alleys and are prone to stash and trash items they are supposedly prohibited from having. My husband has frequently had to ask groups of people drinking and smoking in the alley behind our house to move on. . .We have found needles, spoons, booze bottles, and lots of energy drink cans in our alley and front swale.”

According to property appraiser records, the home is owned by an entity called Triple Red Properties, which has an address on North Swinton Avenue. Triple Red bought the property for $69,300 in August 2013, likely out of foreclosure from Deutsche Bank. State records show that the principal of Triple Red Properties is James Fedele, president of Delray Beach-based Brang Construction.

Whatever happens with this vote, Delray Beach’s crackdown on bad sober homes is working. That staff report shows that five homes within 660 feet of Stepping Stones have closed. So have two that were just outside that 660-foot boundary.

Candidate forum

Susan Haynie

During the Federation of Boca Raton Homeowner Association’s Aug. 9 candidate forum, BocaWatch Publisher Al Zucaro again charged that the city council could have disciplined or even removed former Mayor Susan Haynie last fall. Zucaro is challenging Mayor Scott Singer in the Aug. 28 special election.

Zucaro claims that the council—acting as the Community Redevelopment Agency—had the authority to act after the Nov. 5 Palm Beach Post report on financial ties between a property management company owned by Haynie and her husband and James and Marta Batmasian, Boca Raton’s largest downtown landowners. The first public meeting after the Post story was of the CRA, which approves downtown building applications.

Singer and the other council members did not seek to take action against Haynie at that Nov. 13 meeting. About five months later, Haynie settled a complaint with the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics that arose from the Post story. Zucaro filed the complaint. Ten days later, Haynie was arrested on seven public corruption charges.

At the Aug. 9 forum, Singer defended the council’s decision and said two attorney general advisory opinions support him. Let’s look at Zucaro’s charge.

The state law governing CRAs says the “governing body”—elected or appointed—“may remove a commissioner for inefficiency, neglect of duty, or misconduct in office (italics mine) only after a hearing and only if he or she has been given a copy of the charges at least 10 days prior to such hearing and has had an opportunity to be heard in person or by counsel.”

Misconduct would have been the issue with Haynie. The issue in the Post story was votes Haynie cast on items related to Batmasian as a property owner. At the time, however, Haynie had an advisory opinion from the ethics commission that she could vote. According to the opinion, the company’s “client” was a master condo association, not the Batmasians who owned most of the units in the condo.

As the statute says, any CRA member accused of misconduct by his or her colleagues must have due process. In addition, that advisory opinion notes the potential problem in cities like Boca Raton where the council also serves as the CRA board. Would someone removed from the CRA also be removed from the council? The advisory opinion says no.

Zucaro regularly makes charges against the council, and it’s hard to see any candidate losing votes by beating up on Haynie. Still, the council had no grounds for removing Haynie last November. It became clear quickly that the ethics commission was checking the votes in question and could take action, which it did. Finally, the charging documents reference lots of material that wasn’t in the Post story.

State law allows governors to suspend or remove local officials for misfeasance or malfeasance. That happened when Gov. Rick Scott suspended Haynie after her arrest. She has pleaded not guilty. Despite Zucaro’s charge, the system seems to have worked in Boca Raton.

More on the Haynie case

In Haynie’s case, prosecutors recently filed documents seeking information from four banks, presumably about accounts Haynie holds. Among the charges is the allegation that Haynie failed to disclose income from the Batmasians or entities linked to them.

Meanwhile, Haynie’s lawyer this month will depose the lead prosecutor when the charges were filed, the investigator who interviewed Haynie for the ethics commission and another representative of the state attorney’s office. Prosecutors relied heavily on the investigator’s interview. No one from the state attorney’s office spoke with Haynie before her arrest.

Boca budget shortfall

At tonight’s regular council meeting, Boca Raton City Manager Leif Ahnell will ask to amend the current budget by taking $1.75 million from reserves for unanticipated public safety expenses.

Pension costs, Ahnell said, have been higher than expected. So has overtime, likely driven by the need to place police officers at elementary schools after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Massacre. For the new academic year, the school district is reimbursing the city until the school district force has enough officers.

Ahnell also notes that the city also will get $900,000 from GL Homes. It’s a nonrefundable deposit toward the company’s $65 million purchase of the western golf course. Also Tuesday’s agenda is yet another extension of the inspection period, to Nov. 30. The company and the city continue to work with the county on issues related to a communications tower on the property.

Delray pickleball?

Though Delray Beach City Manager Mark Lauzier is getting good reviews for his first budget, the commission may not support his $350,000 plan for a pickleball complex at Veterans Park.

During a workshop meeting on the budget, Ryan Boylston expressed skepticism because “so many other parks” need help. Bill Bathurst said, “That’s an awful lot of money for pickleball.”

Boca Raton council members hear regularly from pickleball fans. Plans for the second phase of Hillsboro El Rio Park include four pickleball courts. To say they are passionate would be an understatement. The commission hopes to have another workshop before budget hearings in September. The budget year begins Oct. 1.

El-Ad moves to Boca

El-Ad National Properties is moving its headquarters from Plantation in Broward County to Boca Raton.

A division of Elad Group, El-Ad National Properties drew attention recently for its Mizner 200 project on Northeast Mizner Boulevard. The council approved it last year, but the city hasn’t issued permits for what El-Ad has renamed The Monarch. It would displace Mizner on the Green, one of El-Ad’s five rental complexes in Boca.

The headquarters will be in the Bank of America building downtown on East Palmetto Park Road.

Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.

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