Thursday, April 18, 2024

Boca has its goals cut out for it—and Delray is at odds over a dog beach

Goal-setting outcomes

The Boca Raton City Council covered much ground during last week’s three-day goal-setting/strategic planning session. There is much to discuss in detail, and I will do so in the next couple of posts.

Today, however, the topic will be the waterfront plan. It drew much of the council’s interest, and for several reasons it is the most time-sensitive.

One reason is Lake Wyman Park, where the city wants to restore damaged mangroves and sea grass, re-establish canoe trails that residents can use only at high tide because the trails have filled in, repair and expand the boardwalk and increase boater access. The city and the Florida Inland Navigation District (FIND) own the roughly 50 acres that make up Lake Wyman and Rutherford parks along the Intracoastal Waterway north and south of 20th Street.

The city, FIND and Palm Beach County would pay for the project. The deadline to apply for money from FIND, a special taxing district, is April of next year. Because such a request would have to go through the county, however, the council must reach consensus on a plan by October or November, according to City Manager Leif Ahnell.

A previous council had similar goals in 2012 and had pledges of money from the other government entities. Opposition from residents of the Golden Harbour neighborhood at the south end, however, killed what then was a $3 million project. Golden Harbour feared that a sea grass project could become a breeding ground for mosquitoes. When the council couldn’t reach consensus, FIND and the county backed out. FIND would have contributed two-thirds of the money.

The renewed interest in Lake Wyman/Rutherford is encouraging. The condition of the parks embarrasses the city. Mayor Susan Haynie is “confident” about FIND providing money as long as the council reaches “consensus on a new plan.” She acknowledged that Golden Harbour will have “the same concerns.” If there was fear of mosquitoes in 2012, assume that the fear will be much greater, given the Zika virus.

In an earlier conversation with me, Haynie had said some of the work could be shifted north, away from Golden Harbour. The city could restrict launches to non-motorized boats. As Ahnell correctly pointed out, however, to get the FIND money the city will have to show that the project significantly improves navigation. Haynie said, “It will be community benefit vs. neighborhood opposition.”

Those benefits would be impressive. The community would get 50 acres of restored wetlands. The project would remove about a dozen acres of non-native vegetation. The park once again would showcase the environment to children. The central location puts the park an easy distance from most city residents.

Of course, the council would have to reach that consensus in the months leading up to the March 2017 election. Given the comparatively low turnout in city elections, small community groups can have outsized influence on council decisions.

Such thinking, however, would deny benefits to the majority of residents. Such serial political timidity can paralyze cities. Boca Raton should try to address the concerns of neighbors. But when the debate and the negotiations end, the council should reach that consensus and not miss a second opportunity.

Hillstone

The other time-sensitive part of the waterfront plan is the proposed Hillstone restaurant for the former Wildflower property. During last week’s discussion, council members learned that the issue won’t get before them until at least July. The hope had been June.

When Ahnell broke that news, some of the air went out of the room. Everyone knows about the petition drive for a referendum intended to prevent use of the site for a restaurant. Mayor Haynie had hoped for public discussion of a lease proposal and site plan before too many residents were away for the summer. The council meets just one in June and July, and the issue first would have to go before the Planning and Zoning Board.

As Mike Mullaugh noted, though, if July is the first chance, the council shouldn’t wait. True enough. The city has negotiated with Hillstone Restaurant Group for nearly two and a half years. The latest delay is due in part because Hillstone slightly increased the size of the restaurant in its latest offer and in larger part because the city wants to study the idea of having a floating dock at the site.

According to Municipal Services Director Dan Grippo, the study had to examine effects on sea grass, and prime growing season hadn’t arrived. The Army Corps of Engineers would have to approve any permit for a dock.

Deputy City Manager George Brown said negotiations have been “going well,” even if Boca doesn’t have the final least yet. The city is using outside lawyers for some of this specialized work. Ahnell said the lease had been on the agenda twice, but then removed.

On Monday, Councilman Robert Weinroth told me, “I just want to see this thing finished. I think this all reflects on our ability to carry the ball. I’m almost embarrassed by the way this has gone.” And for those who continue to insist that Boca Raton turn a $7.5 million investment into a little-used park with food trucks, consider this:

At one point during last week’s session, the facilitator read a list of what council members and administrators consider Boca Raton’s potential needs over the next 15 years. Such as: projects to relieve traffic congestion, more police services to keep up with new residents and added numbers of college students, park maintenance and expansion and improved levels of service.

“And how are you going to pay for them?” the facilitator asked. The city could raise taxes, but that would be unpopular. New revenue would help. A Wildflower least would be one source of new revenue, providing a proper return on that $7.5 million investment that all taxpayers made, not just those who live nearby.

Floating dock

Speaking of the Wildflower property, Hillstone General Counsel Glenn Viers told me Monday that my question to him about the floating dock was the first time he had heard of the idea.

Hillstone didn’t include a dock in its plan. Viers, who has been the company’s lead negotiator, has said large boats would block diners’ views of the Intracoastal. Viers said Monday, however, that he would be “willing to hear” the idea. “It’s the city’s land.”

Viers said the company submitted new traffic studies to accompany the 120-square-foot increase. The studies, he said, showed “no effect” from the change.

Viers’ tone was cordial. Still, one would think that Boca’s potential partner deserved a courtesy call about the dock study, given the delay it has caused. “I’d like to eat dinner at that restaurant before I retire,” Viers said, “and I’m not an old man.”

Waterfront land inventory

Beyond these two pressing issues, Boca Raton is on schedule to hire a consultant who will inventory all city-owned waterfront land and offer options for making them more accessible. The plan is to hire a firm by July. If that happens, Grippo said, the report could be back by November.

Boca vs. the Beach District

It will be easier for Boca Raton to develop that waterfront plan if the city and the Boca Raton Beach and Park District can work out their differences. Progress may have started on Monday.

District board chairman Robert Rollins presented an update of his agency’s projects, which include a redo of the Swim and Racquet Club south of Town Center Mall. Rollins then discussed the disagreement between the district and the city over Phase II of de Hoernle Park, which is part of the larger policy dispute: Who decides what parks will look like and how much people will pay to use them?

Everyone praised what Mayor Haynie called the agencies’ “40-year partnership.” The council complained that the district didn’t keep the city informed. Rollins complained that the city sandbagged the districts on the de Hoernle plans, adding conditions that would violate the legislation that created the district.

Notably, Rollins seemed eager to schedule the council-district meeting that the council has been asking for. Haynie asked if the district could provide a list of “the items of dispute” in the de Hoernle contract. The agencies then could discuss them. Rollins agreed, and asked for a resolution soon. It’s long past time for the city and district to get past this dispute.

Traffic

Summer may be when the Boca council winds down a little, but the big issues don’t stop. Last year, it was Chabad East Boca. This year, it’s traffic.

On June 13, the city’s traffic consultant will present recommendations for the much-discussed intersection at Palmetto Park Road and Northeast Fifth Avenue—but much more.

Without improvements, Ahnell said, “downtown traffic will get exponentially worse.” There’s a conflict, he said, between making downtown “pedestrian-friendly and moving traffic.” Ahnell said options include a wider Palmetto Park Road west of City Hall and four-laning Fourth Avenue, also west of downtown. There’s talk of a downtown bypass. Haynie said such a project “would be controversial, but it’s very doable.”

I will have more in the next month, and after.

Delray dog beach

I am told that the main item on tonight’s Delray Beach City Commission workshop agenda has generated more emails even then some controversial downtown projects. That item is the proposal for a dog beach. After all, how often does the commission discuss Zoonotic Hookworm?

In its preliminary report to the commission, city staff recommended that Delray Beach allow dogs on a portion of the beach next to Atlantic Dunes Park as part of a test program. City Manager Don Cooper opposed the recommendation because he believed that the projected costs of enforcement were too low and that Delray Beach has more pressing issues. The staff now recommends against even a test program.

Commissioner Jordana Jarjura agrees. “I wish Delray’s only problem/issue was whether or not to have a dog beach,” she said in an email Monday. “Unfortunately, that’s not the case.” Jarjura wants to read the staff report, but finds it “hard for me to think about committing city resources to something new when we have so much on our plate and are stretched so thin.” Among those higher priorities is the city’s response to the heroin epidemic.

In an interview, Shelly Petrolia called the dog beach “a great idea” but said it’s “too soon to take on another issue.” Petrolia recalled that years ago she took her dog to the beach “and mine was the only one. Now, there are 50.”

Mitch Katz disagrees. On Friday, he visited Boca Raton’s dog beach, where owners can bring their pets at certain times on Fridays and weekends. “It was fine. As it got close to the time to leave, people did. They cleaned up. If we can’t handle this, what can we handle?” Delray’s beach park would have similar hours.

The Beach Property Owners Association opposes the program. Many dog owners have emailed the city in support. Katz believes that since people bring dogs to the beach now, added enforcement makes the most sense. Based on the previous comments, supporters will need help from Mayor Cary Glickstein and Commissioner Al Jacquet.

 

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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