Thursday, May 23, 2024

Camino Square Stirs Opposition, O’Rourke Faces Deposition and Other News of Note

Lawyers for Crocker Partners can depose Boca Raton City Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke in the company’s lawsuit over Midtown.

Henry Handler, who represents Crocker, told me that Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Howard Coates last week allowed the questioning of O’Rourke—over the city’s objection. Coates also ruled, however, that for now Crocker cannot depose Mayor Scott Singer and Councilman Jeremy Rodgers.

O’Rourke, Singer and Rodgers are the only remaining members from the council that a year ago voted to stop negotiating with Crocker and other landowners over rules for Midtown redevelopment and for the city to create a “small area plan” for Midtown.

Crocker also can depose Deputy City Manager George Brown and Development Services Director Brandon Schaad, for whom Handler already has issued a subpoena. City Manager Leif Ahnell is off-limits for the moment.

Attorneys for the city had argued that Crocker didn’t need to depose any elected officials because the staff-generated documents spoke for themselves about the council’s decision. Handler, however, noted that O’Rourke had taken an “active, creative” position. She proposed the “small area plan” and then, Handler said, “politicized it on her blog.” So Coates ruled that she didn’t qualify for the protective order from testimony the city had sought.

This lawsuit seeks to have the city write those rules. A separate lawsuit by Crocker seeks nearly $140 million in damages from the council’s refusal to do so. Crocker already is deposing the consultant whom the city hired to work on the “small area plan.”

Depending on what he hears from O’Rourke, Handler said, he may go back to Coates and ask to depose Singer, Rodgers and Ahnell. Handler said he hopes to depose O’Rourke “by the end of the month.”

Camino Square debate

Even by the recent standards of the Boca Raton City Council, Monday’s “debate” on the Camino Square project was bizarre and a little scary.

Acting as the community redevelopment agency, the council was scheduled for a straightforward hearing on the 350-unit apartment project. What began at 1:30 p.m., though, became a long day’s journey into night. A supposed 10-minute recess stretched to more than an hour. Council members idled in the chambers while city officials held not-so-secret conversations in hallways.

When it ended, Camino Square representatives and the city had agreed to continue the issue to the April 8 CRA meeting. Between now and then, the two sides will discuss how to make the project more compatible with the area around the site—the former Winn-Dixie shopping center on Camino Real just west of the FEC railroad tracks.

A better functioning city government might have arrived at that outcome without all the drama and politics. On Monday, that government was not Boca Raton.

An overflow crowd of residents—most of them from Camino Gardens, the neighborhood closest to the proposed project—had packed the chambers to oppose Camino Square. The first speaker set the tone, calling the project “very dangerous” and “an invitation to disaster.”

Yet the city’s two advisory boards had recommended approval. So had the staff. City planners said revisions in the last year had satisfied their concerns about traffic.

Still, it became clear early on that the votes weren’t there to approve Camino Square. By their comments, Mayor Scott Singer and Councilmembers Monica Mayotte and Andrea O’Rourke seemed skeptical at best. O’Rourke was running the meeting as CRA chairwoman.

Several months ago, however, Singer, Mayotte and O’Rourke had voted against an adult living facility that had the same recommendations for approval. That rejection led to a lawsuit, which the city settled by approving the project with minor changes.

As if on cue, a lawyer for Camino Square rose to speak. Despite the public opposition, he told the council members, “This is not a public opinion poll.” The matter was quasi-judicial, not “legislative.” Camino Square met all the requirements of the downtown ordinance, thus the council had to approve it. Anecdotal testimony from residents about traffic didn’t count.

Enter City Attorney Diana Grub Frieser, who basically took over the meeting from O’Rourke. Frieser offered a lengthy commentary on which the council had discretion to reject Camino Square. Firsthand observation from residents did count, Frieser said, just not comments from those who hadn’t observed the site. Frieser added that the owners did not have vested rights along with the property.

Frieser seemed to be preparing the city’s defense if the council voted down Camino Square and the developers sued. Similarly, Frieser has appeared to be laying the city’s defense against the Midtown lawsuits.

Yet even those who criticized Camino Square want something on the abandoned, nine-acre site. Ele Zachariades, a lawyer for Camino Square, called it “the orphan” of downtown Boca Raton.

Some Camino Gardens residents argued that the city should not have included the property in the downtown, where it can qualify for development under Ordinance 4035. Yet the property is within the CRA, and the mission of the CRA is to eradicate blighted areas.

With the outcome clear, O’Rourke asked if Camino Square wanted to postpone the vote. Zachariades said no, but Singer asked if the developer and the city could agree on changes. O’Rourke recessed the meeting.

Shuttle diplomacy began. It involved Frieser, City Manager Leif Ahnell, Development Services Director Brandon Schaad and other city officials. Things got heated. After a conversation between Frieser and Zachariades, Frieser said, “I’m sorry you’re upset.” Zachariades, walking away, snapped, “Are you?”

After the prolonged recess, however, Zachariades told the council that there had been “really good discussions.” And on things will go, as Boca Raton continues a risky way of doing business.

Road improvements

One continuing point on Camino Square will be the developer’s creative proposal for road improvements on Camino Real improvements

Developers pay impact fees to help cover the cost of public services their projects generate. Normally, those fees go to the county, which puts them in a fund to be used at the county’s discretion, not necessarily where the project will be built. The money goes to project within zones. Money from Boca Raton is in the southern zone.

Camino Square’s representatives, however, told the city council that the county commission could vote to reserve the estimated $1.6 million from their project for work on Camino Real between Second Avenue and Dixie Highway. The developer already has agreed to add turn lanes at Third Avenue, to reduce traffic backups.

There was no certainty Monday, however, that the county could, or would reserve that money. County Commissioner Robert Weinroth, who represents Boca Raton, told me Wednesday that County Administrator Verdenia Baker’s initial response was, “No.”

At one point, the developer offered to build a roundabout at Second Avenue and Camino Real. The city’s traffic engineer, however, concluded that the roundabout would make things worse.

It’s unclear whether having that $1.6 million would resolve the Camino Square debate. There are questions about who would do the work and whether that amount would be enough. The work could require taking land from the Fresh Market parking lot. One way or another, though, all sides should have addressed this before Monday.

O’Rourke vs. Singer?

Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke

Although Singer won his August mayoral race by 30 points over Al Zucaro, I’ve heard speculation for weeks that O’Rourke will challenge him in March 2020. So it was interesting to note a moment Monday between them.

The downtown ordinance originally called for those improvements at Camino Real and Dixie Highway, based on growth projections. There was to be a third through lane going east at the intersection and a second left turn lane, as well as two new turn lanes going west.

Those projections, however, were based on heavy downtown office development, which generates the most traffic. Instead, much of the development was residential, which generates the least traffic.

So in 2014, city planners recommended that the council amend the downtown ordinance to eliminate those improvements. The planners noted that Camino Real had been designated as a historic, four-lane boulevard. Scrapping the extra lanes would preserve that designation.

Boca Raton had to send the proposed change to state agencies, which had no objection. Neither did the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council or county traffic engineers. The planning and board approved it unanimously. No one spoke against the change. The city council, acting as the community redevelopment agency, unanimously approved the change in February 2015. The accompanying staff memo concluded that there would be no “adverse impacts.”

Now, of course, that decision has become a flashpoint in the Camino Square debate. One planning and zoning board said he voted to approve Camino Square because it would put pressure on the city to make the improvements and relieve the bottleneck.

During Monday’s meeting, O’Rourke scanned the room looking for someone to explain that vote. She landed on Singer, the only holdover. Singer could have explained the circumstances, but he gave just a quick reply. Jeremy Rodgers made it a point to say while he joined the council in 2015, he did so a month after that vote.

Interestingly, then-Councilwoman Susan Haynie asked about the Winn-Dixie plaza. Noting that the property had vested rights, Haynie asked if development would change the city’s calculation. Then-Traffic Engineer Doug Hess said it wouldn’t.

The vote might look bad now. It didn’t then.

Weinroth’s win

Robert Weinroth
Robert Weinroth

Speaking of new County Commissioner Weinroth, he noted something interesting about his election.

Weinroth defeated William Vale by eight percentage points, After Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher finally released precinct-by-precinct results from November, Weinroth saw that he actually lost to Vale on Election Day by about 1,500 votes. Weinroth won because of his 5,500-vote margin in early voting.

District 4 leans Republican. Weinroth is the first Democrat to represent it since the county created the district. But he also outspent Vale $296,000 to $14,000. That is the district most people expected Susan Haynie to win before she encountered ethics problems that became legal problems.

And that beachfront building       

At 5:30 p.m. today, the Boca Raton Environmental Advisory Board will hold a hearing on plans for a duplex at 2600 N. Ocean Boulevard.

The board will recommend to the city council whether the owner should be allowed to build the four-story structure east of the Coastal Construction Setback Line, which runs through the property. The case has drawn public attention because it’s on the ocean. A four-story home for the property just to the south has not been scheduled for city review.

The meeting on 2600 North Ocean will take place in the city council chambers.

GEO and Negron

Last month, Boca Raton-based GEO Group hired former Florida Senate President Joe Negron as the company’s general counsel. It was a match made in political heaven.

GEO operates private prisons and detention centers. In the Legislature, Negron consistently supported private prisons. When he became Senate president, the Miami Herald reported, GEO gave $270,000 to Negron’s political committee and another $100,000 to his wife’s unsuccessful campaign for Congress. In 2012, Negron tried to privatize the entire state prison system, which would have been a windfall for GEO and other operators.

As president, the Herald reported, Negron steered $3 million to GEO in a no-bid contract. He added another $4 million for private prison operators. Meanwhile, public schools got no new money.

After the GEO announcement, the Tampa Bay Times named Negron its Winner of the Week in Florida Politics.

“Congratulations, Sen. Negron. You win the award for number one poster boy for why so many people mistrust legislators and see politicians as self-dealing phonies.”

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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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