Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Did the City of Boca Raton Try to Sabotage Chick-fil-A?

It seemed routine. A fast-food restaurant’s site plan was before the Boca Raton Planning and Zoning Board.

It was anything but routine.

During the hour-long discussion, board members essentially accused city staff members of trying to keep a Chick-fil-A from opening in East Boca by imposing so many conditions that the company would give up. The seven-member board had the last word. Rejecting the site plan would have meant rejecting the project.

Board member Larry Snowden said he had “never witnessed such government overreach.” He called it “shameful.” Timothy Dornblaser called it “absurd” to seek such “cockamamie conditions.” Board Chairman Arnold Sevell said the city had sought “draconian” rules.

The site is between the entrances to Palmetto Park Square just east of Interstate 95. The plaza is home to a large Publix and other stores and restaurants. The Chick-fil-A will replace a branch bank office near the plaza’s service road. Nearby is a Taco Bell restaurant that became part of the discussion.

Chick-fil-A outlets are very popular. At lunchtime, drive-through lanes attract lots of cars. Reasonable conditions would ensure that such traffic doesn’t create a bottleneck.

In this case, however, the conditions seemed unreasonable. Example: City planners wanted the Chick-fil-A to have a dynamic message board telling drivers if there was room for them in the drive-through lane. Board member Larry Cellon said drily, “That seems a lot to ask.”

The conditions didn’t end there, and they continued to the extreme. Under what the staff proposed, a city manager could shut down the drive-through service if he or she believed that traffic was causing a problem. Board member Joe Panella wondered who might be the manager in 10 years. “What will his thoughts be about serving chicken?”

Ele Zachariades is Chick-fil-A’s attorney. When her turn came, Zachariades noted her 18 years of practicing land-use law. “I have never seen,” she said, “such government overreach and discrimination against one company.”

The city, Zachariades said, “completely redesigned our site plan.” After being “at this for two years,” the city’s revisions, she said, came to her barely two hours before the planning and zoning board hearing. Board members also complained about getting the proposed conditions very late.

Zachariades went on to flay the city’s arguments for the restrictive conditions. The restaurant, she said, “is a permitted use” and none of the conditions are in the city’s code. The city imposed no such conditions, Zachariades said, on that nearby Taco Bell.

Code requires capacity for 10 cars in drive-through lanes, Zachariades said. Chick-fil-A will provide space for nearly 30. A bypass lane will allow people who mistakenly entered the drive-through lane to leave it. Zachariades asked the board to remove all the proposed conditions from approval of the site plan.

Brandon Schaad, the city’s top planner, defended the conditions by calling the property “a very tight site,” with a gas station/car wash across the street. “We have to make choices.”

Board members, however, wanted none of that. They especially reacted badly when Schaad claimed that the city was trying to “save (Chick-fil-A) from themselves” because the conditions might prevent Boca Raton from having to shut down construction for as long as two weeks if the city saw problems.

Schaad’s defense only hardened the board’s overall position. Dornblaser called the city’s attitude something out of “a dictatorship.”

Had her client known about the city’s proposals from the beginning, Zachariades said, “Chick-fil-A would have said, ‘Thank you, but no thanks.'”

So did someone at a high level in Boca Raton want the project to fail? Does someone dislike Chick-fil-A, say, for its founder’s vocal public opposition to same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights in general?

In seven-plus years of writing this blog, I’ve regularly heard observations that some projects in Boca Raton move quickly through city approvals while others take much longer. All those comments, of course, are off the record. Going public could antagonize those in the approval process.

Schaad called the idea of a conspiracy “nonsensical.” He added, “This was all about managing the drive-through.” But two years is a ridiculously long time to deal with a fast-food restaurant. And the late arrival of key documents struck not just Zachariades but board members as an ambush.

By a 6-1 vote, the board sided with Chick-fil-A and stripped the conditions. The dissenter was Jean Da Rocha, the only board member who said nothing during the hearing.

Sevell made the key point. It is in the company’s interest, he said, to avoid problems with the drive-through lanes. “Chick-fil-A,” Sevell added, “should not be penalized because of a perception that it will do too much business.”

New city manager in Delray    

Delray Beach’s new city manager will start Aug. 2.

Last week, the city commission took just three minutes to approve unanimously a contract for Terrence Moore. He will make $230,000 per year, less than the starting salaries of the last two managers. Mark Lauzier made $235,000 and George Gretsas got $265,000.

In addition, the city will deposit another roughly $30,000—equivalent to 14 percent of his salary—into a pension account for Moore. He will receive a monthly car allowance of $600 and moving expenses of up to $7,500. He also will get $2,000 per month for up to six months for temporary living expenses after he moves from College Park, Georgia.

Moore indicated that he wants to buy a house in Delray Beach. All across South Florida, however, the inventory of homes for sales is low and prices are at record levels.

If the commission fired Moore without cause, he would get the standard 20 weeks. The contract does not include the clause that led to a pair of hearings to first suspend and then fire Gretsas. City Manager Lynn Gelin wrote one set of charges for the first hearing and another for the second.

Gelin later claimed that she tried to warn commissioners about Gretsas’ insistence on that language. With Moore, her tone was much different. She called the one-day contract negotiations with the new manager “a pleasure.”

Senator Polsky concerned about vax demand

polsky

The state senator who represents Boca Raton has less to do these days with the COVID-19 vaccine. That’s good and bad.

Unlike the winter and early spring, Senator Tina Polsky told me last week, “I don’t need to push for our fair share.” She helped to arrange a vaccine event at the Wayne Barton Study Center at which the shots were gone quickly.

Now the state and federal governments are closing the mass vaccination centers that once were jammed. Publix is offering walk-in appointments. “Availability,” Polsky said, “is fine.”

Unfortunately, demand is not, especially among some minority neighborhoods. “I am very concerned,” Polsky said.

In some parts of her district, vaccination rates are high. Throughout Palm Beach County, 76 percent of those 65 and older have received both shots.

Countywide, however, just 43 percent of residents are fully vaccinated. That’s barely above the statewide number of 41.7 percent. Florida ranks only 28th in the percentage of its population who are fully vaccinated.

Though almost 37,300 people in Florida have died of the virus, Polsky said sentiment among many legislators during the recent session was “almost as if COVID-19 never happened.” Florida just became the largest state to report virus numbers weekly, not daily. Said Polsky, “Crazy days.”

Brightline settles with Martin County

brightline

Brightline has resolved another lawsuit.

This one came from Indian River County, which likely will not get a station along the 168-mile route from West Palm Beach to Orlando. Under the settlement, Brightline and the Florida Department of Transportation will pay $31.6 million for safety improvement at the county’s 32 rail crossings.

Brightline, which is supposed to begin work on its Boca Raton Station in late summer or early fall, met strong resistance from local governments in the Treasure Coast. They saw their constituents gaining nothing from the service while dealing with as many as 32 trains each day. A settlement with Martin County requires a station there at a still undetermined date.

Meanwhile, Brightline works on expanding service past Orlando to Tampa. The company expects to complete construction of the West Palm Beach-Orlando link in 2022. Brightline suspended service last March in the early days of the pandemic and has not announced when it will resume.

BH3 hearing

A hearing is scheduled for Wednesday in the lawsuit by the company that the Delray Beach Community Redevelopment Agency chose to develop a key West Atlantic Avenue site.

BH3 claims that the CRA board last January wrongly found the company in default of the purchase agreement. According to BH3’s attorney, Glen Waldman, CRA staffers said it would take five months for BH3 to redesign its plans based on what the agency requested. Board members, Waldman said, gave the company only 90 days.

Last month, Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Glenn Kelley denied BH3’s motion for an injunction against the deadlines in the purchase agreement. BH3 has appealed. On Wednesday, the company will ask Kelley to delay further decisions until the appeal is resolved.

It has been 22 months since the CRA chose BH3. It has been nearly eight years since the CRA first put out the bid for the three blocks east of the Fairfield Inn.

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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