Friday, November 26, 2021

Boca Square Assisted Living Facility Draws Pushback & More

Even though a proposed residence for older people is probably months away from any public hearing, residents of a Boca Raton neighborhood have been expressing their opposition at city council meetings.

The project is a three-story, 128-bed assisted living facility (ALF) on the site of a former church three blocks north of Addison Mizner School on Southwest 12th Avenue. Hundreds of potential neighbors in Boca Square have signed a petition opposing the ALF.

Boca Raton-based Whelchel Partners is the applicant. Its two principals are the son and daughter of Susan Whelchel, the city’s former mayor.

Jay Whelchel said his company signed a contract to buy the 3.6-acre site in the spring of 2020. Then the pandemic hit. “We sat on our hands.” He considered a medical office for the property before deciding that it “wouldn’t work.” Whelchel said, “I had been looking at ALFs” for his parents, which gave him the idea. The contract is conditioned on city approval of the project.

Last month, Whelchel Partners held a Zoom meeting with residents. Ele Zachariades is the company’s attorney.

“I came away from that meeting,” Zachariades said, “without one request or idea.” She meant that residents didn’t propose that Whelchel Partners shrink the size of the project or do more to separate it from the neighborhood. “All I heard was, ‘We don’t want this.'”

Holli Sutton organized the petition campaign. Her house is one of four that adjoin the property. That sentiment, Sutton said, captures not just her attitude but also the position of most of her neighbors.

“I want a park there,” Sutton said. Addison Mizner parents, she added, meet there after school drop-off in the morning and before pickup in the afternoon. “It’s so nice. I want that to continue.”

Sutton claimed that early on the city hadn’t communicated sufficiently with the neighbors. They heard in June, Sutton said, that Councilwoman Monica Mayotte would sponsor the amendment for a land-use change to allow the ALF. Sutton noted that Mayotte has received campaign contributions from Zachariades’ firm.

“I just had this feeling,” Sutton said. “Everyone was very concerned.”

Aside from the size of the building, the neighbors’ main concern is traffic. The property is close to Palmetto Park Road, and Southwest 12th Avenue is a busy street. In two years, Addison Mizner will have added middle school grades to what had been an elementary school.

To reduce the impact, Zachariades said, the ALF would prohibit visiting hours during school drop-offs and pickups. Employee shift changes also would happen during off-peak times. Zachariades noted that a fire station once stood on the vacant lot across from the site.

Whelchel acknowledged, however, that the company would “engage a partner” to operate the ALF. Sutton said of those traffic proposals, “How can (Whelchel) guarantee that? How do we know the operator would abide by that?”

Whelchel said he envisions the ALF as “convenient” for residents who want their parents to “age in place,” as Zachariades put it. “I’m thoroughly surprised” by the level of opposition.

Sutton responds that the project isn’t needed or could go elsewhere. Neighbors, she said, called nearby ALFs and found that they were at less than 50 percent capacity.

Zachariades said single-family homes wouldn’t work on that site. She pointed out that road improvements for the reopening of Addison Mizner closed off one entrance to the site. If the city rejected the ALF, Zachariades said, current rules allow construction of a day care center.

As for a park, that would require the owner being willing to sell and the city being willing to buy the land and build the park. Selling to the city almost certainly would mean a lower price. The assessed value is $1.3 million.

Whelchel would consider going smaller “to accomplish” the goal of building the ALF. That could mean reducing the number of beds or the size of the building and/or moving the building farther from those adjoining homes. At this point, however, the neighbors seem more focused on stopping the project than compromising.

The city has not scheduled any hearings on the ALF, but Zachariades said it might get to the community appearance board “pretty soon.” Developers often seek preliminary guidance from the CAB to address issues before the formal hearing. Farther off is a hearing before the planning and zoning board.

Meanwhile, as Whelchel said, the church “keeps falling into disrepair.” I’ll have more as the project gets closer to a council vote.

More Delray Commission drama

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Not surprisingly, things got testy on Tuesday when the Delray Beach City Commission discussed an item related to Old School Square.

Before the commission was the question of whether to indemnify—protect from damage—Mayor Shelly Petrolia and city commissioners Juli Casale and Shirley Johnson and City Attorney Lynn Gelin. All are named individually as defendants in Old School Square’s lawsuit against the city, those four and two other people.

This question doesn’t normally arise when a city gets sued because the litigation doesn’t single out elected officials for actions that were part of their duties. An attorney representing the city would represent the commissioners. They would not be liable for damages.

In this case, however, Old School Square alleges that Petrolia, Casale and Johnson went beyond their normal responsibilities as part of a conspiracy to end the lease of city property that Old School Square has had for 32 years. The lawsuit alleges abuse of process by Gelin. Without separate indemnification, all four could be found liable.

Commissioners Ryan Boylston and Adam Frankel voted against ending the lease. On Tuesday, Frankel made a motion to approve indemnification—with a condition. If a court upheld the allegations, all four would have to reimburse the city for their legal fees. That condition also would apply to anyone who took the Fifth Amendment.

Petrolia quickly got hostile. Frankel noted that she had taken the Fifth herself. Petrolia shot back that she had done so only to keep the city from being entangled in a lawsuit. 

Boylston acknowledged Frankel’s point but said he wouldn’t support the condition. Frankel then said he would withdraw his motion. “Smart,” snapped Petrolia, drawing criticism from Boylston.

All but Frankel voted for indemnification. The item had not been on the agenda as of Monday. Boylston said Gelin added it before the meeting. The vote to terminate the Old School Square lease had not been on the agenda.

Fees begin in new express lanes

Photo via Adobe Stock

Free rides on Interstate 95 toll lanes are over.

This week, fares kicked for the section between Glades Road and Cypress Creek Road in Broward County. Drivers in the two toll lanes–the state calls them “express lanes”–will pay rates based on the number of cars. The highway remains free for drivers in the other three lanes.

The next phase, which is under construction, will extend the toll lanes to Linton Boulevard. The state expects to complete that project in 2024.

New county mayor

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Commissioner Robert Weinroth

Robert Weinroth is Palm Beach County’s new mayor.

The position is a ceremonial one, on which the seven county commissioners vote. Weinroth, whose district includes Boca Raton and Delray Beach, was due to become mayor a year ago. Because of the pandemic, however, his colleagues voted to retain Dave Kerner, for continuity during an unusual time.

Weinroth, a Democrat, is a former member of the Boca Raton City Council. He ran for the county job in 2018. At the moment, he is unopposed for re-election next year and has raised $268,000.

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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