A Very Bad Deal for the Ag Reserve & Delray Water Report Findings

agricultural reserve
Image: © Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post via ZUMA Wire

Perhaps Palm Beach County should get rid of its planning and legal departments. Apparently, five county commissioners don’t consider those departments to be necessary, at least on big issues.

Last week, those planners and lawyers explained over and over to the county commission why a proposal that will benefit the Lake Worth Drainage District and GL Homes won’t benefit the Agricultural Reserve Area. Under that proposal, the district will sell GL roughly 300 acres of canal rights-of-way within the reserve that no developer could build on. GL get to claim credit for “preserving” that land and build 313 homes that the county’s comprehensive plan otherwise would not allow.

For seven years, county staff members have stated that this deal would provide no public benefit. Yet commissioners Mack Bernard, Maria Marino, Melissa McKinlay, Robert Weinroth and Gregg Weiss found ways to side with the district and GL and against the public. Only Dave Kerner and Maria Sachs dissented.

Those commissioners noted that the county made similar deals with the South Florida Water Management District. Yes, the planners and lawyers responded, but those deals furthered the goals of the comprehensive plan. This one does not.

Weiss and Weinroth complained about the “ambiguity” in the plan. Actually, the planners and lawyers responded, there’s no ambiguity. The district and GL must meet all aspects of the plan, not just one.

With this action, the commission has set a precedent that could allow even more homes where none were envisioned. Each extra home risks making the reserve more suburban than agricultural and undercutting the 22-year effort—backed with $100 million that voters approved—to protect as much farming in the reserve as possible.

Conservation or community groups could consider litigation, but they first would have to establish standing. Two commissioners who voted yes could reconsider and ask for a new vote, but that almost certainly won’t happen.

My take is that the commission’s action amounts to a subsidy of large landowners within the drainage district. It’s a special taxing agency, but the drainage district doesn’t levy a property tax, like, say, the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Parks District.

Instead, residents of the drainage district—southeastern Palm Beach County—are assessed per acre. The assessment now is $49.50.

But if you live on a typical quarter-acre lot, you still pay the whole $49.50. Owners of smaller lots thus partially subsidize owners with large holdings.

The district could raise that assessment to get the $22 million it will receive from the sale to GL. But Executive Director Tommy Strowd said doing so would fall hardest on large landowners. Those large landowners control elections for the district’s five supervisors, three of whom are large landowners themselves.

Perhaps the unique Agricultural Reserve Area did not start to die last Wednesday. But if in another 22 years the reserve is just a memory, those five commissioners will have started the death spiral.

Did Delray hide water problems?

delray

Take your pick of how to view last week’s report by the Palm Beach County Office of Inspector General on Delray Beach’s reclaimed water problems.

Investigators did determine that city employees in late 2018 failed to notify the Florida Department of Health about residents’ complaints that they had become sick from reclaimed—partially treated—water getting into the drinking water system. This was not news.

But the report did not find that any elected official or any administrator above Scott Solomon—who was the city’s water and sewer manager—knew about the failure to tell the state. Though a city whistleblower alleged otherwise, Inspector General John Carey said Monday that his team found no evidence of a cover-up.

Instead, Carey said, investigators kept finding “discrepancies” between what the whistle blower recalled and memories of participants in the same meetings. Carey called the whistleblower “very knowledgeable and very credible”—the office met with the unnamed person five times—but said the accusations of higher involvement were not specific and amounted only to comments such as “Everybody knew it” and “up the chain.”

A draft report by the Department of Health recommends that Delray Beach pay a fine of roughly $3 million for failures related to water quality. After state agencies review the draft there will be a final recommendation. The city’s recent declaration that it intends to build a new water plant likely is one attempt to escape the most severe penalty.

The state examined the city’s overall response, or lack of it. Carey’s office looked at individuals. Still missing is a review of the work done by Lanzo Construction. In December 2017, the company got a contract to expand the reclaimed water system. A year later, residents wondered if they had gotten sick because of faulty work.

Some city officials may want to move on as quickly as possible. Mayor Shelly Petrolia suggested last month that the city could end the contract it signed with a public relations firm to offer crisis management advice on dealing with water issues.

The Department of Health report, however, found institutional failure on the city’s part when it comes to water quality. Commissioners who read the report will find a detailed rebuttal from the whistleblower of the conclusions. There remains much that residents don’t know about how the failure occurred.

Updates on Delray lawsuits

Delray Beach is creating lots of work for lawyers, and the work shows no sign of slowing. Some examples:

• Judges have set trial dates for Michael Coleman and Jamael Stewart. They were the top administrators in the Department of Neighborhood and Community Services before resigning in June 2019.

Coleman and Stewart sued, claiming that they were intimidated with threats into resigning. Their litigation focuses on former Assistant City Manager Suzanne Fisher, who supervised their department.

The men remain very popular within the city, especially among minority residents. Unless there is a settlement, Coleman’s trial is scheduled to take place during a five-week window from Nov. 3 to Dec. 11. Stewart’s trial would take place between Jan. 3 and Feb. 11.

• A hearing will take place today in the lawsuit by former City Manager Mark Lauzier. Like Coleman and Stewart, he alleges wrongful termination when the city commission fired him on March 1, 2019.

The city got one of the counts dropped but has failed in its attempt to have the case dismissed. Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Samantha Schosberg Feuer has scheduled a trial between Aug. 16 and Sept. 10.

• BH3, which the community redevelopment agency chose to develop the three blocks east of the Fairfield Inn, sued the city claiming breach of contract. BH3 objected to the agency’s refusal for more time to secure approvals for the mixed-use project called Fabrik.

Depositions have started. Based on the court file, it seems that the city wants to keep BH3 from securing a temporary injunction against the CRA negotiating with other companies. No trial date has been set.

Boca in-person meetings return

Boca Raton will return to in-person city council meetings next month.

On Monday, council members discussed whether to end the virtual format with the next set of meetings in May or in June. City Manager Leif Ahnell said several key staff members would not have received their second COVID-19 vaccine until June.

To maintain social distancing and allow as many members of the public to attend as possible, the meetings will be held in the city complex at 6500 North Congress Avenue. The auditorium is much larger than the cramped City Hall council chambers and now can offer live television coverage or live streaming.

This week, Boca Raton will hold the goal-setting meeting that was an annual event until the pandemic caused the city to cancel it last year. Council members and department heads will meet from 8:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and again on Friday if additional business remains. The meetings will be virtual.

The public can comment at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Thursday and at 11 a.m. on Thursday. A city spokeswoman said “a very limited number of seats” will be available in the council chambers. A projection system will show the meeting and the public may comments at those times.

And Delray goal-setting

Delray Beach has set June 3-4 for its own goal-setting meetings. As of Monday, the city had not determined a location or times for the meeting.

Boca Museum vote

At tonight’s meeting, the Boca Raton City Council will approve a plan for the Boca Raton Museum of Art to tear down the colonnade that is on the west side of the Mizner Park Amphitheater. The colonnade also is the de facto eastern border of the museum.

According to a presentation museum representatives made at Monday’s workshop meeting, a row of architectural structures called fins will replace the colonnade. There will be a new sidewalk, landscaping art pieces and lighting. Representatives say the project will make the museum more accessible and allow a still-undisclosed major exhibition.

A fence will continue to separate the museum from crowds at amphitheater events. Museum Director Irvin Lippman said demolition could began by late June and would take about six weeks. Construction of the new entrance would take another eight weeks.

The redone museum could be part of a renovated, expanded arts presence with the amphitheater on the north end of Mizner Park. Council members heard presentations Monday from groups that want to lease the vacant, city-owned property east of the amphitheater. I’ll report Thursday on those presentations.

Junior League garden groundbreaking

Groundbreaking took place Monday on the Junior League of Boca Raton’s new community garden at Meadows Park. Construction of the Brightline station will displace the current garden east of the Downtown Library.

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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.