Thursday, December 1, 2022

Boca Raton Nearly Back to Normal After Irma, Debris Remains a Problem

Cleaning up and restoring power

As of Monday morning, according to Mayor Susan Haynie, only 140 homes in Boca Raton still lacked electricity. Traffic signals were working, and except for all the debris it was a normal workday.

Obviously, though, Irma remains the main topic. Of that debris, Haynie said the city’s contractor should have removed “most of it by this weekend.” Since other storms are in the Atlantic, there’s a need for speed. After the contractor finishes, the normal city crews will be around to collect whatever else homeowners picked up, such as branches that were hanging and finally fell. Regular garbage pickup and recycling are on normal schedules.

Elected officials will resume work next week, with the community redevelopment agency meeting, city council workshop and first budget hearing on Monday, followed by the city council meeting on Tuesday night. City Manager Leif Ahnell will finalize the agendas later this week, but Haynie said Monday that she would like to defer any business that isn’t urgent. Example: The report by Song & Associates on the downtown government campus has been moved to the Oct. 10 regular council meeting.

“I think we need as much time as possible (next week) to hear from residents” about storm issues, Haynie said. The main subject almost certainly will be power, which will lead to a discussion of trees bringing down power lines. “Most of the problems” with lost electricity, Haynie said, “are related to the tree canopy.”

Sea grape blocks a beach entrance at Spanish River Park. Photo by Randy Schultz.
Sea grape blocks a pathway at Spanish River Park. Photo by Randy Schultz.

Haynie speaks from personal experience. When Irma took down some tall sea grape trees in Camino Gardens, Haynie and many of her neighbors lost power. Were the trees on common property or private property? Haynie isn’t sure. Either way, they weren’t trimmed.

Though Florida Power & Light has a tree-trimming program, workers only cut branches away from power lines. The tree—and thus the risk—remains. Even if a ficus tree is trimmed on both sides of a line, Haynie said, winds still could uproot the tree and take down the line.

Most tree-related power problems happened in the older eastern part of Boca Raton, where the canopy is thickest. FPL’s Right Tree, Right Place program encourages smarter planting for new construction, but it doesn’t help existing neighborhoods.

Homeowner associations can help by requiring members to maintain their trees. I would expect the city’s discussion to cover such issues as whether Boca Raton could ban certain trees in new projects or offer incentives for removal of dangerous trees and replanting of safer ones.

Haynie expects that the council will hear demands that the city bury all power lines, as happens with new construction. That ever-tempting solution, however, is more problematic than people might think.

Burying lines in areas vulnerable to surge could delay restoration if a neighborhood floods. And putting the lines underground is very expensive. A 2016 referendum to bury the lines in Palm Beach—the town lost power for two weeks after Wilma—passed by just 62 votes. Lawsuits have delayed the project, which would be financed by 30-year special assessments on property owners.

A program that reduces the risk of downed lines would be cheaper and more effective. Beyond what the council hears next week, Haynie would like the community advisory panel to hold a town hall-style meeting about trees and storm-proofing next month. The best response to power failures would be a plan to reduce them.

City meetings & medical marijuana dispensaries


With Boca Raton having missed a round of meetings because of Irma, Ahnell and the council will have to decide what should be on next week’s agendas and what can wait.

First priority is the budget. The city had to delay the first of two required readings. As noted, that will happen Monday evening. Normally, the city holds the second hearing two weeks later. But the budget year begins Oct. 1. Gov. Rick Scott gave cities and counties some leeway on that deadline because of the storm, but as of Monday Boca Raton wasn’t sure whether the second hearing would come as early as Sept. 28 or as late as October. The city hopes to know this week.

As in Delray Beach, the council always hears from nonprofit agencies seeking city money. Irma may prompt more, and higher, requests.

Also likely to be on the agenda is the introduction of an ordinance that would ban medical marijuana dispensaries and a ban on “conversion therapy”—the practice of attempting to change sexual orientation, usually from gay, lesbian or transgender to straight.

The marijuana issue likely will be more controversial. After voters approved medical marijuana in 2014 through a constitutional amendment, the Legislature wrote enabling legislation that gives cities and counties the choice of allowing marijuana dispensaries wherever pharmacies can be located or banning them. There’s no middle ground. That’s how the Legislature usually reacts when the voters go around them—restrict things as much as possible.

Based on my conversations, the ban would need only a third vote from Andrea O’Rourke, Jeremy Rodgers or Scott Singer. Mayor Haynie told me that she would support it. So did Councilman Robert Weinroth, who noted the public desire for availability but called the issue “complicated.”

Haynie noted that under current zoning a dispensary could set up across Clint Moore Road from Calusa Elementary School. She acknowledged that the dispensaries she has seen are clean, well-lighted places—“like Apple stores.” Still, she and Weinroth don’t like the lack of control. They consider the ban a better option until the Legislature modifies the rules to give local governments more flexibility over dispensary locations. They note that Boca Raton residents could obtain medical marijuana through the mail or in a nearby city.

Delray Beach approved a ban 3-2 on first reading of the ordinance. The second and final reading will be on the Sept. 26 city commission agenda.

Though Commissioner Mitch Katz voted for the ban with Mayor Cary Glickstein and Commissioner Shelly Petrolia, he hinted that he might change his mind. Commissioners Jim Chard and Shirley Ervin Johnson voted against the ban.

Chard has told me that he wants to respect the overwhelming vote within the city for medical marijuana. Glickstein said, “I’m fine allowing other Florida cities to be the test cases, where we can learn what works and what doesn’t before we buy ourselves more problems that may prove legally difficult to modify.”

Both cities must decide either way. Each has passed a series of annual moratoriums while waiting for Tallahassee to act. Each city’s legal staff, though, has said that such moratoriums can’t continue.

Tuesday meeting to address golf course


One big item that remains on schedule in Boca Raton is the meeting Tuesday between the council and the beach and park district about the Ocean Breeze golf course.

The district is supposed to present information that would support its request that the city underwrite $24 million in bonds for the district to buy the closed course and perhaps $12 million more to make it ready for play. Bob Rollins, the district’s board chairman, told me Monday that his agency is “waiting on a report from the appraiser” and plans to submit the information to the city “by midweek.”

The district also will submit a report from the National Golf Foundation on the financial prospects for a reopened Ocean Breeze. Rollins said the report “should be informative and answer most of the council’s questions.” The meeting will take place from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the city’s facility on North Congress Avenue that most recently served as the emergency operations center.

Boca’s damage/removal costs

Beach dunes in Boca Raton. Photo by Randy Schultz.
Beach dunes in Boca Raton still contain debris. Photo by Randy Schultz.

Like the city, the beach and park district was fully operational Monday, including the fieldhouse at Sugar Sand Park. Chairman Rollins had worried that high humidity from loss of power might have damaged the playing floors at the fieldhouse.

Rollins said the structural damage to district facilities totaled only about $100,000. Debris removal, however, could cost $3 million. Like the city, the district will seek reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but the district still will pay a portion of the cost.

“Abysmal” cable company


With power back on to almost everyone in Delray Beach, the city has a new enemy: Comcast.

Mayor Glickstein called the telecommunications company’s performance “abysmal.” Residents whose power FPL had restored days ago still don’t have cable TV and Internet and phone service. Glickstein said of Comcast, “If I could fine them, I would.”

Half of Delray Beach had regained power by Tuesday, Glickstein said. He noted that Comcast’s delay deprives some customers of home security service. Referring to Comcast, Glickstein said, “They have no contact with the city at all. They have been abysmal.”

In terms of city services, Delray Beach is in good shape. On Friday, the city notified residents that the sewage system was back at full capacity. As of Monday, only four lift stations still lacked power.

Delray budget meeting tonight

Delray Beach did get in that first budget hearing on time, three days before Irma arrived. Yet the city commission will hold a budget workshop tonight.

No major issues arose during that Sept. 7 hearing, but it’s the first budget for Chard and Johnson. With the second hearing set for Sept. 26, it’s late in the game to be seeking significant changes.

Smooth meeting between CRA and city commission

Because of Irma, it seems as if it happened months ago—but the Delray Beach City Commission and the board of the community redevelopment agency board met Aug. 30 to discuss their respective budgets, and it went well.

The gathering was the first since the commission in May came one vote short of taking over the CRA. Three board members are new. Though the meeting lasted three hours, the key point was settled early.

The commission’s main gripe has been that the CRA should pay for more public works improvement within the agency’s borders. Doing so would allow the city to shift more money to work outside the CRA. Revenue from increased property values within the CRA must go to the CRA, not the city.

CRA Director Jeff Costello was visibly nervous as he began the meeting by laying out the agency’s budget. Though the commission had questions, the comment that mattered came from Interim City Manager Neal de Jesus: “They funded everything that we requested.”

De Jesus acknowledged, “We have a lot of unfinished business.” There is a plan, though, for “getting those projects off the list.” He praised the cooperation from Costello, which began under former City Manager Don Cooper and has continued.

Glickstein called the meeting “productive.” He noted that the CRA has taken over “95 percent” of the financing of nonprofit agencies that perform “quasi-governmental functions”—the library, Old School Square, Arts Garage—as opposed to charitable groups.

Chard called the meeting “a lovefest by comparison” with earlier gatherings. “They came back with a budget along the lines of what the commission had been thinking.” Still, Chard complained that Osceola Park “is overlooked.” Yet another study of the area is coming, he said, before work begins in earnest. Chard lives in Osceola Park, but other residents have made the same complaint.

Johnson also came away happy. Indeed, she would like the commission and the CRA to meet every month. “I have continuously said that communication is the key element to what has bedeviled us.”

She admitted that coordinating schedules would be difficult “but not impossible. Improving communications between the two bodies is key to any success we desire, and that speaks to all the issues raised during the debate of the CRA takeover.”

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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