Tuesday, December 5, 2023

City vs. District: More on the Boca National Impasse

There is an impasse over the proposed Boca Raton National golf course.

On Monday, the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District made what the city council considers an unreasonable demand. Speaking for the district board at the council’s workshop meeting, Craig Ehrnst asked the council to allocate $20 million for construction of Boca National as the city’s new, public course. It would be on the site of what had been the private Ocean Breeze course in the Boca Teeca community.

Ehrnst didn’t ask the city to underwrite the cost, as the city did when the district bought the land. He didn’t ask the city to pay part of the construction cost. He asked the city to pay all of it. Mayor Scott Singer spoke for his colleagues when he said, “I want to be your partner. I wasn’t expecting 100 percent of the going-forward cost.”

Ehrnst also proposed that the district and the city be partners in operating of Boca National. But the district would be the majority partner, at 55 percent.

So the district wants the city to finance a course design with which the council doesn’t agree and then allow the district to run the course. You can understand why council members didn’t embrace such a deal.

Trying to be diplomatic, Ehrnst acknowledged the district’s mistakes on Boca National. “We did not engage the city” early enough, he says. “We didn’t provide clear financial information.”

Indeed. We are at this point only because district representatives regularly assured the city that the district would need help only with financing, being able to use Boca Raton’s excellent credit rating. They said the district could buy the land, build the course, run the course and complete other approved projects without raising taxes.

If construction of Boca National had been between $14 million and $15 million—a figure the district discussed publicly for months—“We could have handled it,” Ehrnst said. As the council sees it, the district now wants a bailout but only on the district’s terms.

For the moment, that won’t happen. Councilman Andy Thomson has persuaded his colleagues to hear from officials in Winter Park, the affluent Orlando suburb whose municipal course is much different from what the district’s designers envision. Rather than a standard 18-hole layout, Winter Park features one nine-hole course. Thompson wold like Boca National to have two such courses. Golfers could play just one, if they’re short on time, or play both in the traditional format.

At the council-district meeting two weeks ago, board member Susan Vogelgesang said she had traveled to Winter Park and commented unfavorably on the course. On Monday, however, Thomson said a delegation from the city made the same trip and came back impressed.

So despite Ehrnst’s comment that Boca National is a “mutual project,” the city and district still are talking past each other. Example: The city wants greens fees at Boca National to be lower than what the district proposes.

These differences are fundamental, not minor. Representatives of Price Fazio—which designed Boca National—tried to assure council members that they weren’t looking for a “championship course.” Their goal was to attract players from all levels. They want a putting course for first-timers. They suggested that the clubhouse could offer yoga sessions.

The Price Fazio team and Ehrnst, however, strongly hinted that if the city examined the cost through its own consultant, the numbers wouldn’t change much. Some of the core cost is to remove “degraded trees.” The course has been closed since 2016 and the site has not been kept up.

Council members, though, know that $20 million isn’t the final figure. That number doesn’t include even a clubhouse smaller than the original design. And nothing has gone out for bid at a time when contractors are busy and not inclined to offer bargains.

“I am not prepared to do $20 million,” Singer said. On Wednesday, Thomson said he is “committed” to having the city take over design and construction. Other council members on Monday suggested that if the city was going to pay for the course, the city should build and operate it.

But as Thomson noted, “We couldn’t just take it.” The district board might resist if it became clear that the city wanted a very different design. Board member Erin Wright, who sounds more agreeable to a city takeover than some of her colleagues, nevertheless said she worries about a version as different as what Thomson wants.

Timing is also problematic. The council won’t meet again until July 22, because of the summer schedule. By then, the district and city budgets will be nearly complete. The city’s decision could affect other key projects, such as the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center master plan and the second phase of the de Hoernle athletic complex.

Singer said the city “will know a lot more in the next six weeks.” That may not be enough time to resolve the impasse, if the impasse can be resolved.

What BocaFirst says

The BocaFirst website keeps pushing the idea that the way out of the Boca National dispute is for the city to buy Ocean Strand. It’s the 15-acre parcel between the Intracoastal Waterway and the ocean that the district owns.

Presumably, the idea is that the district could use the money to pay for construction of Boca National. The sale also could placate neighbors who worry that the district might sell Ocean Strand for development.

I reported in March that Compson Associates had approached council members and district board members about buying Ocean Strand and building a Ritz-Carlton hotel and a marina. But Ocean Strand didn’t come up during the council-district joint meeting. It didn’t come up during Monday’s discussion. I sense no sentiment among council members to buy Ocean Strand.

LPGA Comes to Boca

The Ladies Professional Golf Association announced Thursday that the Boca Rio Golf Club will host a new event on the women’s pro tour.

The Gainbridge LPGA Tournament will take place Jan. 20 to 26 as the 2020 season’s second event. Gainbridge is a life insurance and annuity company that is part of Group 1001, a financial services firm that advertises itself as having $36 billion in assets under management. This year, Gainbridge also became lead sponsor of the Indianapolis 500, the country’s best-known car race.

Based on past years, the women’s event should come just before the men’s senior tour event. That takes place at Broken Sound’s Old Course. Boca Rio is just west of the Florida Turnpike and south of Palmetto Park Road.

Communications tower

For the second meeting in a row, the Boca Raton City Council spent more than an hour debating an item that was on the consent agenda. It’s a collection of items that are bundled and approved in a single vote because they usually aren’t controversial.

Two weeks ago, it was the proposal to outsource residential garbage pickup. On Tuesday, the item was a 400-foot communications tower proposed for the southeast corner of what is now Boca Raton’s municipal golf course, which GL Homes has a contract to buy.

The city would pay $3 million for the tower, which Boca Raton eventually would own. The city would share it with the county. Both agencies would use it only for their public safety radio systems. It would not be a cell phone tower. There would be no private users.

Opposition came Tuesday from owners of nearby towers, who seemed to worry about competition. Some property owners expressed concern that the tower could fall onto their land. A website called Keep West Boca Beautiful urged the public to attend the June 6 meeting of the Palm Beach Zoning Commission, which approved the tower.

Though the city would own the tower, the county commission will make the final decision—in two weeks— because the land is in the county. Deputy City Manager George Brown said GL does not oppose the project.

Brown told council members that the tower is vital to the public safety radio network and that the county could put a tower of its own on the property regardless of what the city did. Jeremy Rodgers and Andy Thomson wanted to postpone a decision because of a late offer from one of the other tower operators. They complained that the council got the issue at the last minute. Brown said delay by the city could affect the timetable that now calls for completing the tower in October of next year.

Mayor Singer and council members Monica Mayotte and Andrea O’Rourke voted against the motion to table the proposal. Both cited public safety. I’ll have more on this before the June 27 county commission hearing.

Tri-Rail Development

Boca Raton Tri-Rail station. (Photo by Aaron Bristol)

I have reported on the proposal to develop roughly six acres near Boca Raton’s Tri-Rail station on Yamato Road. The agency’s board chose PEBB Enterprises from among three applicants. PEBB would build medical offices.

Steven Abrams, the former Boca Raton mayor who now is Tri-Rail’s executive director, told me that the board likely would decide at its June 28 meeting. Abrams said the agency is “trying to resolve conflicting appraisals” of the site to “decide whether PEBB’s offer is the best deal.”

When the board picked PEBB, Abrams told me that its proposal seemed to have the best chance of approval. Whatever plan Tri-Rail favors, the city has the final say.

Public forum today in Boca

Reminder: Boca Raton will hold a public forum today on the city’s recreation needs assessment. The event takes place from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Downtown Library.

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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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