Another Lawsuit on the Way for “Resident-Friendly” Boca and Other Observations

Wildflower Park (Randy Schultz)

(Editor’s note: This post has been updated to correct mistakes about parties in litigation arising from Boca Raton’s denial of a senior living center.)

Boca Raton paid $7.5 million for the Wildflower property so iguanas could have a place to sunbathe. Last week came news of more litigation the city could have avoided. These two items are related—and they are related to the city’s special election.

The litigation will be a claim for between $50 million and $100 million in damages from Robert Buehl, a city resident and the owner of land on which developers wanted to build  The Concierge. Last month, the city council—acting as the community redevelopment agency—rejected the high-end senior living center planned for a site near Mizner Boulevard and Dixie Highway.

City planners had recommended approval of The Concierge. So had two advisory boards. Last year, the CRA approved a similar project on Royal Palm Road near the Intracoastal Waterway.

Yet council members Monica Mayotte and Andrea O’Rourke and Mayor Scott Singer voted against the project. Only Councilman Jeremy Rodgers favored it.

Worse, Mayotte and O’Rourke said they didn’t like the idea of having too many old folks downtown. Senior centers wouldn’t create the proper downtown “vibe.” Their residents wouldn’t be walking around and going out to dinner. A news release noted that O’Rourke invoked her mother, for whom a trip to the doctor is “something to do.”

Mayotte’s and O’Rourke’s comments made me cringe. Now the rejection could make Boca Raton residents cringe.

Buehl announced last week in a news release that he would file a claim under the Bert Harris Act, named for the Central Florida legislator who sponsored the legislation in the mid-1990s. A representative said in an email that Buehl filed it last Tuesday. Group P6, the development team, has filed a separate challenge in circuit court.

Buehl argues that the CRA’s rejection was illegal and that Mayotte’s and O’Rourke’s comments violate the federal Fair Housing Act. Once Boca Raton receives notice of the claim—Mayotte said Monday that it hasn’t happened—the city has 150 days to respond or face a lawsuit.

This would be the second Bert Harris claim against the city in 2018. The first came in April, from Crocker Partners, the largest landowner in Midtown. In January, the city council had refused to approve development rules for Midtown despite telling Crocker six months earlier that agreement between the city and company was close.

Crocker owns four properties in the area, the most notable being Boca Center. Tom Crocker built it 30 years ago, then sold it. In December 2014, his company bought it back for $193 million. Crocker proposed a Midtown remake involving three other prominent landowners. Managing Partner Angelo Bianco took the lead in negotiating with the city.

The plan would have brought investment designed to transform Midtown. Landowners would have paid for the public works improvements. But O’Rourke—urged on by the BocaWatch website—kept pushing for a “small area master plan” study of the area. That term did not exist until O’Rourke used it. The council finally agreed. After what clearly was another delaying tactic, Bianco stopped negotiating and called in his lawyers. On Monday, Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Howard Coates denied the city’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which seeks $137 million in damages.

O’Rourke campaigned in 2017 against “overdevelopment,” calling herself a “resident-friendly” candidate. Mayotte did the same in 2018. In the Aug. 28 special election, Kathy Cottrell is the self-proclaimed “resident-friendly” candidate. All three have had support from BocaWatch and Publisher Al Zucaro, who is running on Aug. 28 against Mayor Singer. Naturally, Zucaro calls himself “resident-friendly.”

How “resident-friendly,” however, is a council member so opposed to development that she or he risks an expensive lawsuit just to vote no? Even if the city prevails against Crocker, Buehl and Group P6, defending against the litigation will take time and money. The cases also could tell investors that Boca Raton is closed for business. For those who don’t like “overdevelopment,” check with cities that have no development.

Wildflower Park?

Iguanas sunbathe at Wildflower Park (Randy Schultz)

Which brings us to the Wildflower property, which technically is now Wildflower Park, though the setting is hardly park-like.

The city bought the land in 2009 for that $7.5 million. Though the plan for using it wasn’t final, the council intended that the property bring revenue to the city.

After public comment, the council sought bids. Hillstone Restaurant Group, which owns the Houston’s near Town Center Mall and about 50 other eateries, proposed a similar project for the Wildflower. It would have made the site a waterfront destination yet retained public access to that portion of the Intracoastal across Palmetto Park Road from Silver Palm Park.

The council chose Hillstone in late 2013. More than two years later, however, city administrators had not finalized the lease terms. Meanwhile, residents who lived near the site began to express opposition. They began a petition campaign for an ordinance that would make a restaurant off-limits.

O’Rourke, who soon would announce her run for council, supported the ordinance. So did BocaWatch, where O’Rourke had been editor. So did Singer, then a council member with a goal of becoming mayor.

The campaign for the ordinance was deceptive. Supporters claimed that “developers” wanted to “commercialize” Boca Raton’s waterfront parks. They didn’t. They couldn’t. The Wildflower was not a park. Nor were “developers” eyeing any parks.

Still, the demagoguery worked. The ordinance passed. If the city had closed the deal earlier, the restaurant likely would be open, bringing activity to the site from late morning until late evening and paying money to the city.

Instead, iguanas use the park more than Boca Raton residents. At a recent meeting, O’Rourke mentioned the iguanas and asked when the city expected to hear next about Wildflower and Silver Palm from its consultant on waterfront parks.

A public meeting is set for Sept. 26. O’Rourke has visions of her own destination project on the combined six acres, once someone can figure out how to make it fit with the boat launch at Silver Palm and once someone can figure how much it might cost and once someone can figure how the uses might comply with the ordinance.

The current budget includes $90,000 for design work at Wildflower and $50,000 for design work at Silver Palm. Next year’s budget includes $3 million for Wildflower—seawall work and such—and $1.5 million for Silver Palm.

So city taxpayers are out nearly $11 million for the two-plus acres of the Wildflower with no money set to come back. There is no plan yet for how the Wildflower will attract enough people at all hours to justify that $7.5 million purchase price.

“Resident-friendly?”

To recap, in the last two years the “resident-friendly” approach has cost Boca Raton investment that could have accomplished at the Wildflower what the city still is debating. The “resident-friendly” approach has cost Boca Raton investment in Midtown. The “resident-friendly” approach has cost the city investment in The Concierge, which would have brought $600,000 a year in property taxes for the school district without adding any students.

Meanwhile, “resident-friendly” has brought big-number litigation. While the Concierge case has just begun, the city must respond to the Crocker claim by Sept. 8. A spokeswoman said the city would do so next week.

That “resident-friendly” approach is on the ballot today, in the form of Zucaro and Cottrell. Whoever wins will inherit what that approach has brought.

Term limits

Those winners of today’s special election in Boca Raton for mayor and Seat A on the city council could serve an unusually long time.

Boca Raton limits elected officials to two consecutive three-year terms. This election, however, is to fill out the mayor and council terms. They expire in March 2020. Tuesday’s winners thus would be eligible to complete the current term and run twice more, giving them to chance to serve for almost eight years.

This last happened with Mike Mullaugh. In late 2008, the council appointed him to complete the term of Peter Baronoff. That term didn’t expire until March 2011. Mullaugh then won two terms on his own, leaving the council in 2017.

Delray looking at raises

In August 2016, voters in Boca Raton narrowly approved raises for the mayor and city council members. Delray Beach may be starting the process to do the same.

City Manager Mark Lauzier said during a recent meeting that he “looked at” salaries of what he considered nearby comparable municipalities and found Delray Beach to be $10,000 low. The issue also had arisen during goal-setting meetings last spring.

Delray Beach pays the mayor $13,000 in salary. City commissioners get $10,200. Boynton Beach, which has roughly the same population, pays $23,000 and $19,000. Boca Raton’s new salaries are $38,000 and $28,000, but Boca has roughly 30,000 more residents. The council also acts as the community redevelopment agency. That’s now the case is Delray Beach, but there’s no certainty that the switch will be permanent.

As in Boca Raton, only the voters could raise commission salaries. The next scheduled city election is in March 2020.

New Delray police contract

Delray Beach’s contract with the Police Benevolent Association expires on Sept. 30, the end of the current budget year. City Manager Mark Lauzier said there is progress in negotiations for a new, three-year deal.

Those negotiations likely won’t end until after the city commission votes on the new budget. That isn’t unusual. Delray Beach and Boca Raton and the public safety unions both have missed that deadline in recent years. Police officers and firefighters work under the old contract, and the new agreement would become retroactive to the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year.

The police contract must go to the membership for a vote.

“We have not heard back,” Lauzier said, “whether they like our final offer or not.”

If the membership ratifies the contract, Lauzier will “make the necessary budget adjustments” during hearings next months. Though the commission already has approved the tax rate, Lauzier said, “There will be no impact to the bottom line or the tax rate due to good budget planning.”

Pension reform  

Delray Beach commissioners recently updated the city’s creative public safety pension reform plan.

Two years ago, with support from the unions, the city split what had been the board overseeing the police and fire pension programs. Smaller, separate boards now monitor each program, including its solvency projections and investment decisions.

Commissioners acted because they believed that unions had too much control over the larger board. They also questioned the fund’s investment performance. The city crafted the new plan in a way that allows Delray Beach to keep money for the police and fire pension funds that comes from statewide assessments on insurance policies. The Legislature created the fund as an incentive to maintain their own funds and not have employees go into the state pension program.

OSS Budget

Old School Square still does not have a permanent director to replace Rob Steele, but on Monday the cultural center got a $750,000 commitment toward next year’s budget from the Delray Beach City Commission.

Board members told the commission, acting as the community redevelopment agency, that Old School Square has cut its budget by nearly one-third and made other changes to stabilize the non-profit organization. The Cornell Art Museum also completed a $1 million renovation. A review committee of city officials determined that Old School Square met requirements to get money from the CRA.

Commissioners have talked for years about the need for non-profits to raise more of their own money. Old School Square board members said independence also is their goal. Everyone agreed on the importance of Old School Square to the city. The consensus, however, seemed to be that Old School Square needs to show progress toward that financial independence in the next year.

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