Boca Brightline Station Looks to Be a Certainty, and the Debate on Boca National Rages on

A Brightline train passes the Miami Design District.

A Brightline station is coming to Boca Raton.

It’s not official. But it’s obvious.

At Tuesday night’s meeting, city council members heard details from Virgin Trains USA executives about the company’s revised offer. Jeremy Rodgers said, “Brightline has moved a lot,” and he’s correct.

Gone is the company’s demand that the city donate two pieces of land in addition to the parcels for the station and a parking garage next to the downtown library. Virgin Trains now wants only first dibs on an option from the city for those properties.

Gone is the demand that the city build a pedestrian walkover. Virgin Trains now will help the city seek federal or state money for the project.

Gone is the demand that the city pay for a shuttle.

Most notably, gone is the demand that the city pay the entire cost of the parking garage. Company officials said Tuesday that Virgin Trains USA would pay for the 58 spaces for library patrons that construction would displace.  The city would pay based on the 342 spaces for train passengers. There is no estimate for the cost of the 400-space garage, but current industry figures cite a price of about $20,000 per space.

Mayor Scott Singer noted that the council only was telling City Manager Leif Ahnell to proceed further with negotiations. But the council members’ comments revealed what the outcome will be.

Andy Thomson: Virgin Trains has “heard us loud and clear on our concerns.” The company has acted in “good faith” and been “responsive and forthcoming.”

Andrea O’Rourke: “We have to move forward.”

Rodgers: “A lot of good can come from this.”

Mayor Scott Singer: The new offer “feels more like a partnership.”

Monica Mayotte: “This will be a very good addition to our city.”

Virgin Trains felt confident enough to prepare a statement before the meeting and hand it out afterward: “This marks another significant step in expanding Virgin Trains to Boca Raton.”

Not that everyone’s happy. Residents of Library Commons, which is north of the library, packed the chambers Tuesday to complain about the size of the garage and how near it will be to their community. Company officials say they will work Library Commons residents on lighting and setbacks.

Though the library still would have 181 overall parking spaces, members of the Friends of the Library expressed concern about patrons getting from the garage to the library. Virgin Trains said passengers and patrons would use separate entrances and that the company would provide security in the garage.

One major question, however, remains: What might Virgin Trains—or a developer partner—do with that city land if the company acquires it?

As I have written, Boca Raton had designated land east of the library for a train station. That decision envisioned commuter service—station and parking only.

Optioning the land, however, could put added development next to the library and Library Commons. Jose Gonzalez is executive vice president for real estate development of Virgin Trains’ parent company. He told council members that the possibilities include residential, office or a hotel.

Those possibilities worry the Friends of the Library, who already weren’t too keen on the garage. As one speaker said, “The station isn’t the end of the story.”

Gonzalez said the idea of building on that city land “might go nowhere.” But officials in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale tout the stations’ role in spurring development. Gonzalez wants Virgin to have an “exclusive conversation” about the properties and “preserve our optionality.” Delaying that decision delays the potentially more controversial aspect of the station.

Virgin Trains wants a vote from the council next month. The company would like to open the station by the end of next year. At this point, there’s no reason to think that won’t happen.

Boca National still debated    

There still is no decision on the proposed Boca National golf course.

At Wednesday night’s meeting, the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District board delayed until Tuesday its vote on a planned tax increase. City council members attended the meeting to protest the increase and had urged city residents to do the same.

Council members contend that the tax increase is to pay for the district’s version of Boca National, which the city considers too expensive. At least one district board member, Craig Ehrnst, blamed the increase on the city.

Board members asked district staff to discuss with city administrators whether the city should take over construction of the course. Another option is to have the district’s designer reduce the cost.

Time is working against the district. The city council doesn’t have a scheduled regular meeting until Oct. 8, though the city could call a special meeting if there were time for the required public notice.

I’ll have more on this in my Tuesday post.

Robo call

Councilman Jeremy Rodgers

On Tuesday evening, some Boca Raton residents got a tape-recorded call from City Councilman Jeremy Rodgers. He asked them to attend Wednesday’s night meeting of the beach and park district to protest that tax increase.

Among political robo-calls, this was unusual. Rodgers was intervening in the workings of another agency. City officials got calls Wednesday asking if the city had paid for the call, even though Rodgers said no taxpayer money was involved and noted that he was acting on his own.

Rodgers told me Wednesday afternoon, “I paid for it.” He said the call went to about 10,000 homes, from a list that a political consultant provided. That list likely was of regular voters.

The cost, Rodgers said, was about $400. He thought about using money from his office account, which includes leftover donations from his 2018 re-election campaign. Though that use would be legal, Rodgers said, he probably would pay with his own money.

Why do it? “It was my last-ditch effort” to draw attention to what be considers an unneeded tax increase for an expensive golf course that has drawn too little public attention. Rodgers believes that few Boca Raton residents understand that the city and district are separate agencies with separate tax rates.

“I wish more residents knew,” Rodgers said. “So I wanted to let them know.” He said the beach and park district “operates in a bubble.” Ehrnst’s comment, he added, “really set me off.”

Motive?  

The call from Rodgers got me thinking – and not about golf or taxes.

Because the call was unusual, it took on more of a potentially political nature. Could there be a motive?

Rodgers, a Republican, is term-limited in March 2021. Democrat Robert Weinroth, whose county commission district includes Boca Raton, is up for re-election in 2022.

A Republican had represented District 4, which also includes much of Delray Beach, since the commission went to single-member districts in 1990. At one point, the seat seemed certain to stay with the GOP.

But then former Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie, who was prepared to run, ran into the legal problems that led to her arrest in April of last year. Republicans couldn’t find a well-known candidate for the GOP-leaning district, so the party’s nominee was first-timer William Vale.

Weinroth outraised Vale by about $200,000. Steven Abrams, the term-limited incumbent, endorsed Weinroth. Yet he still got just 54 percent.

After six years on the council, Rodgers would have high name recognition. Even though most county issues are non-partisan, party types keep track of the makeup. The GOP now has just one of seven seats.

I asked Rodgers if he’s considering a run for county commission. “No, not really,” he said. Rodgers has a full-time job with IBM that he almost certainly would have to give up. But if the party were compiling a list of challengers to Weinroth, Rodgers would be on it.

Gretsas vote scheduled

George Gretsas

The Delray Beach City Commission has scheduled a special meeting for 1 p.m. Tuesday at which commissioners expect to vote on a contract for George Gretsas, their choice to be city manager.

I’m told that City Attorney Lynn Gelin has been updating commissioners on the negotiations and believes that the contract terms will be acceptable. Delray Beach has been without a permanent city manager since the commission fired Mark Lauzier on March 1.

Verdict in on Boca murder

It took nearly seven years, but the first verdict arrived last week in the killing of a bartender at Josephine’s Restaurant in Boca Raton.

A jury convicted Samuel Magic Walker of first-degree murder in the slaying of Rafael Rodriguez. It happened on Jan. 4, 2013 and was one of the city’s most high-profile murder cases.

Two other defendants still await trial. Since the defense claimed that Walker wasn’t at Josephine’s that night—despite considerable evidence to the contrary—an appeal seems certain.

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