Thursday, May 23, 2024

A Showdown Over Boca National, and the City Loses and Gains a Lawsuit

The proposed Boca National golf course has become a showdown.

At its meeting Tuesday night, the city council made a clear break with the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District over the cost of the course. The district’s designer places that at $28 million. Combined with the cost to buy the former Ocean Breeze course at Boca Teeca, that version of Boca National would cost $52 million.

District commissioners want the city to pay that $28 million, because their agency doesn’t have the money. The two sides fenced over the topic during Monday’s city council workshop, and council members resumed the discussion on Tuesday.

When it was done, they had decided to seek cheaper designs. Councilman Andy Thomson has been especially vocal about looking for other options. By their next meeting on Aug. 26, council members hope to hear alternatives in the $8 million to $10 million range.

In response, district commissioners at a special meeting this afternoon might propose raising taxes enough to pay for the course. Commissioner Steven Engel called the city’s action “disappointing.” He added, “If the city council has no real interest in partnering with us, then we will have to look at other options, including an increase in the (tax) rate.”

With that action, however, the board would presume that a $52 million golf course is the district’s highest priority. It would assume that the district could build and operate the course successfully and never need help from the city. Given the district’s record on Ocean Breeze, that could be a risky assumption.

Not all current district commissioners agree, but after covering this over four years, there seems little doubt that the district overpromised on Boca National.

In 2014, Boca Raton began receiving unsolicited offers for the main golf course. As the offers got higher, the city decided to sell the course and not replace it.

Then the idea arose to buy the closed Ocean Breeze course and renovate it. The city approached the district. Residents of Boca Teeca, who feared that the land might be developed, quickly embraced the idea and formed a group called Keep Golf in Boca.

At that time, Art Koski was the district’s interim executive director, lawyer and project manager. The board allowed Koski to investigate the idea of the district buying and running a redone Ocean Breeze.

Koski negotiated the sale of the 200 acres, for $24 million, far above appraisals. That was a sore point for the council, but every member with the exception of Councilman Jeremy Rodgers voted to issue the bonds. Koski also took a fee for his services.

Koski then stated—more than once—that the district could buy the land, renovate and operate the course, complete all other projects—and not raise taxes. All the district would need from the city is bond underwriting, with the district reimbursing Boca Raton’s annual payments.

Had Koski been right, the district wouldn’t be facing this serious problem. But Koski was wrong. Now the district wants $28 million that the city never anticipated the district would want.

Engel said, “We can’t cry over spilled milk.” He added, “We will be relying on Price Fazio (the designer) to keep a tight rein on costs and constantly value-engineer the project to achieve savings wherever possible. . .We have made a commitment to District residents that they will receive a quality product. Living up to that commitment is our responsibility.”

There’s the problem, as the city sees it. Council members don’t agree with “that commitment.”

Yet district commissioners basically scoff at what they consider the city’s belated action. Commissioner Susan Vogelgesang said, “I think that proper due diligence on a project of this magnitude is impossible to accomplish in four weeks.” Commissioner Craig Ehrnst noted that the district spent months to get 17 detailed responses from designers. “Kudos to city staff, and I hope they don’t have vacation plans.”

Timing complicates this showdown. The city and the district must approve their budgets in two months. Both sides want work on the course to start soon. Both sides also see other high-priced items coming.

For the city, it’s new costs to maintain in-house residential garbage collection and acquire a Brightline station. For the district, it’s the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center master plan, which could cost between $24 million and $30 million to implement.

Engel points out that even a vote today to raise taxes wouldn’t be final. It merely would set the maximum rate. The district levy is slightly less than $1 per $1,000 of assessed value. Boca Raton residents pay it. So do those who live between the city and the Florida Turnpike, which is the district’s western boundary.

Yet Engel also says, “Given our obligations beyond Boca National, an increase may be forthcoming in any event.”

Ehrnst said, “I don’t think the district has any alternative other than raising taxes to the maximum level, regardless if it is used for the golf course or Gumbo Limbo.” That maximum, contained in the state law that created the district, is $2. But there are limits on how much the district could raise it in one year.

Ironically, the district and city are paying for a study to determine the area’s recreation needs. What if the district invests $52 million in Boca National and results come back that golf ranks very low except among the faithful?

Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke said, “The residents I hear from (on Boca National) are the golfers and Boca Teeca residents. For the most part, they seem want it built ASAP at all cost.”

Indeed, Boca Teeca residents have become increasingly nasty at council meetings, groaning when someone suggests more studies. But their failure to play golf led to the closing of Ocean Breeze. They see the course as a subsidy to boost their property values.

Thomson said the council’s decision didn’t represent an “irretrievable” separation on Boca National.

“We may find that Price Fazio is right about the price because of the conditions at Ocean Breeze. I don’t think that’s so, but, either way, I don’t see any harm in the city asking.”

Crocker Lawsuit Dismissed

Crocker Partners portrait of Midtown

Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Howard Coates last week granted Boca Raton’s motion to dismiss one of three lawsuits by Crocker Partners.

The company filed this one as a claim under the state’s Bert Harris Act. Crocker is one of the largest landowners in the city’s Midtown neighborhood near Town Center mall. In January 2018, the city council asked for a “small area plan” for Midtown rather than approve development rules that Crocker and other landowners had sought.

Crocker claims that the action amounted to an illegal “taking” of property rights and sought $137 million in alleged lost profits. Coates sided with the city that Crocker could make no such claim because no regulations existed when Crocker bought its properties. Coates ruled that Crocker could have had a reasonable expectation of rights that included residential development.

On Wednesday, Managing Partner Angelo Bianco said Crocker would appeal. “It’s a very narrow ruling, and I am confident that we will prevail.”

Meanwhile, Crocker’s two other lawsuits against the city will continue. One asks a judge to compel the city issue those Midtown development regulations. The other alleges that the city violated the Sunshine Law in creating the “small area plan.”

Another lawsuit for Boca

Speaking of lawsuits, Boca Raton likely will face another one related to a development decision.

Tuesday night, the council unanimously recommended denial of a variance that would allow construction of a single-family home at 2500 N. Ocean Blvd. The owner needed the variance because the property is east of the Coastal Construction Control Line. The state established it to protect beaches.

Council members sided with city planners and a consultant that construction would cause serious environmental damage. Example: Harm to sea turtle nests. Neil Schiller, the applicant’s attorney, argued that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission had reached a different conclusion.

Schiller also pointed out that the council in 2015 had granted a variance that would allow the home to be built on what the city considers an undersized lot. The city argued that the variance allowed construction only if the project wouldn’t damage the beachfront.

In that 2015 case, the staff recommendation was to approve the variance. Mayor Scott Singer, then a council member, voted for the variance. Councilman Jeremy Rodgers voted against it.

That approval drew criticism that the council wasn’t protecting Boca Raton’s beachfront. Discussions ensued with the beach and park district over public purchase of that and other privately owned oceanfront land. Though the district paid for appraisals, there were no purchases.

Tuesday’s denial seemed inevitable after the council’s similar rejection of the application for a multi-family project at 2600 N. Ocean Blvd. That applicant has filed two lawsuits. One challenges the denial. The other, like Crocker’s, alleges violations of the open meetings law.

At the city’s request, Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Donald Hafele canceled an Aug. 6 hearing on the Sunshine Law case. The city argued that the case is too complicated for the planned 15-minute argument and asked for 30 minutes.

Tuesday’s hearing got testy when the applicant cited an ethics investigation into the city’s consultant and questioned his credibility. City Attorney Diana Frieser noted that the applicant had filed the complaint. Schiller said his client is “considering all options.”

1 Million Rides for Brightline

A Brightline train passes the Miami Design District

Virgin Trains USA, which wants to build a station in Boca Raton for its Brightline service, announced Thursday that total ridership hit 1 million.

The trains began operating in January 2018, between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, and expanded to Miami four months later. Service to Orlando is scheduled to start in 2022.

The company would like to open a Boca Raton station by the end of next year. That will depend on negotiations between the city and the company. Virgin Trains wants the city to donate land, build a parking garage, and pay for a shuttle service from the station.

Taxes Going up in Delray

Boca Raton’s tax rate for next year will be essentially unchanged. As in Delray Beach, however, tax bills nevertheless will rise.

On Tuesday, the city council approved a rate of $3.67 per $1,000 of assessed value. But property values citywide increased by roughly five percent. At the proposed rate, which the council will make official in September, the owner of a home assessed at $400,000 with a $50,000 exemption would pay about $1,300.

Homeowners also would pay a higher fire fee. City staff proposes an increase from $135 to $145 that would raise another $1 million. Citywide, the fee raises roughly $12 million in revenue.

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Randy Schultz
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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