Friday, April 19, 2024

Election post-mortem and other notes on the new world order

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Post-election wind down

While the reverberations from the national election continue, here are some thoughts on the two elections that involved Boca Raton.

Not surprisingly, the waterfront ordinance passed by a margin of roughly 2-to-1. When your signs say “Protect Boca’s Waterfront Parks,” you win—even if the land in question isn’t a park and there is no threat to any of the city’s actual waterfront parks.

Credit the petitioners whose goal was to block use of the Wildflower site for a restaurant that would have been near their homes. In seeking a narrow goal, however, they gave the city a sweeping ordinance that restricts city-owned land along the Intracoastal Waterway to public boating access, public recreation, public streets and stormwater.

What does that mean? Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, for example, is non-profit, not public. Whatever it means, the city now has a new ordinance to enforce and must decide how to do it. Noting that “the people have spoken,” Mayor Susan Haynie told me Wednesday morning that she would meet with City Attorney Diana Grub Frieser in the afternoon to discuss the effects.

“The ordinance is very limited,” Haynie said. “I don’t feel compelled to ignore it.” The city council could discuss implementation at its next meeting on Nov. 22, but the sale of the western golf course and a possible related acquisition of the Ocean Breeze course at Boca Teeca already are on the agenda. Discussion will take hours.

It will be interesting to see supporters of the ordinance now argue that the ordinance doesn’t really mean much. Let the unintended consequences begin.

So now what?

With the Hillstone restaurant deal almost certainly dead, the other question for the city council will concern what to do with the Wildflower property.

Presumably, the council would look to Scott Singer, who held a “visioning session” on ideas for the Wildflower and possibly Silver Palm Park after dropping his support for the restaurant. I emailed Singer to ask if he plans to seek staff guidance for some of the options, but I did not hear back by my deadline for this post.

Haynie said use of the Wildflower and/or Silver Palm would be another issue for discussion. Some of the ideas from Singer’s session, she said, are “not practical” because they are “amenities” that would require extra parking. In seeking to lease the Wildflower to Hillstone, the council made what Robert Weinroth called “a blood oath” not to reduce parking for boaters at Silver Palm. The boat launch could move to Rutherford Park, but discussions of that project are in the early stages.

There also will be the matter of cost and, more important, that pesky ordinance. Any private “amenities” would violate the ordinance. Allowing even a small restaurant could invite a lawsuit from Hillstone.

And the Park District

If the vote on the ordinance was no surprise, the Greater Boca Raton Beach & Park District election was a comparative stunner.

Incumbents on this clubby agency rarely had lost or even faced challenges. On Tuesday, two incumbents on the five-member board lost. Craig Ehrnst defeated Dennis Frisch and Erin Wright defeated Earl Starkoff. Ehrnst had run previously for city council, but Wright never had sought public office. Frisch and Starkoff were seeking their third terms.

So if change dominated the race at the top of the ballot, change influenced these races near the bottom of the ballot. Relations between the district and the city, which co-manage the park system, had frayed in recent years. District board members—especially Starkoff—blamed the city. Ehrnst and Wright campaign on the idea that the district needed to be more cooperative.

“Dennis Frisch is a great person,” Ehrnst told me on Wednesday, adding that he knows Frisch more by reputation than acquaintance. “It was kind of hard to do this. I just think that things could be done better.” Ehrnst prevailed by eight percentage points.

Wright’s margin was half that, but her victory perhaps was more impressive. Starkoff and Frisch received a late endorsement from the county firefighters union, which had told the city’s union that it would take no position in either race. In addition, Starkoff got a late $1,000 contribution from the county union.

Ehrnst and Wright will take office in January. Their first decision may be whether to promote Briann Harms from assistant director to executive director. She would replace Art Koski, who has had the job on an interim basis since 2012 and also serves as the district’s attorney and construction manager. Ehrnst said he would wait to decide: “I want to see what Mr. Koski’s role would be.”

Endorsement from Majhess?

That late endorsement from the county fire union came in the form of a mailer financed through BocaWatch by a Tallahassee political action committee. Most likely, the facilitator was Anthony Majhess, a former Boca Raton City Council member who is a county firefighter. BocaWatch Publisher Al Zucaro gave Majhess a favorable interview to talk about the Wildflower property.

The local union helped Ehrnst and Wright, who is married to a firefighter. Craig Agronoff, the consultant who worked on their campaigns, said their victories resulted from “a combination of many things, but I really enjoyed working with the fire department and couldn’t imagine the victory without their support.” The union had criticized the incumbents for suggesting that the district might privatize some services, which could mean the loss of city jobs.

BocaWatch invested heavily in Frisch’s and Starkoff’s campaigns, endorsing them, giving them interviews and regularly touting their candidacies. Starkoff also received a late $250 from former council member Peter Baronoff. He, too, got interview time to criticize the current council on the Wildflower issue, though Baronoff wrongly claimed to have been on the council when the city bought the land and when the council decided what to do with it.

Turnout

Though the ordinance and the beach and park races were last on the ballot, there was little drop-off in turnout. The Ehrnst-Frisch Seat 1 race drew about 43,000 votes, as did the Starkoff-Wright matchup. The ordinance, which was by itself on the last page of the ballot, got slightly more than 41,000 votes.

Better district-city relations

Perhaps because Ehrnst and Wright campaigned on the idea of better district-city relations, there’s progress on the biggest issue between the two agencies.

That would be the master agreement for operation at all parks, which would replace the seven park-by-park agreements. Last month, Koski and Assistant City Manager Michael Woika met to discuss the agreement after months of stalled negotiations. Both sides confirm that the meeting was productive.

According to Koski, the meeting covered “a multitude of terms” that would be in the agreement. Among other things, the agreement would standardize and simplify the system by which the district reimburses the city for part operation and maintenance and for the time city staff members spend on district work. The district has just two full-time employees.

Koski and Woika left two important policy decisions for the meeting between the district board and the city council, which is scheduled for January. One is whether residents in newly annexed areas not within the district would pay user fees, since they would not be paying district taxes. A local bill in the Legislature could bring any such neighborhoods into the district, but there could be lag time between annexation and passage. The other issue is how to define a resident of the district, which determines eligibility for teams and cost.

The agreement might be ready for approval not long after Ehrnst and Wright take office. How fitting.

Ocean Breeze news

Speaking of the beach and park district, there’s a new element in that Nov. 22 discussion about Boca Raton’s western golf course and the Ocean Breeze course.

Last week, Greg Norman—the celebrated “Great White Shark” and member of the World Golf Hall of Fame—sent a letter to Koski expressing interest in developing a Greg Norman Champions Golf Academy on what are now the eastern nine holes of 27-hole Boca Teeca. Norman operates a similar facility in North Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Koski said he met Norman’s son about six months ago when Gregory Norman thought about creating mechanized waves at the De Hoernle Park lake for surfing. That didn’t work out, but the conversation moved to Boca Teeca.

Some city council members who are open to acquiring Ocean Breeze don’t necessarily want 27 holes of golf. An abandoned hotel sits on that side of the course. According to Koski, Norman’s group said Radisson is interested in building a “40-to-50-room hotel” for golfers attending the academy. Koski said the academy could generate “a ‘wow factor’ “ for the city.

Delray Place South

If the Delray Place South project were a movie and the Site Plan Review and Appearance Board (SPRAB) the Oscar judges, the project would have won a few technical awards on Oct. 26 but lost for Best Picture.

The developer of Delray Place North, at Federal Highway and Linton Boulevard—Trader Joe’s is the anchor —wants to expand onto a smaller parcel that adjoins Tropic Boulevard, the main entrance to the Tropic Isle neighborhood of about 400 single-family homes and more than 1,000 multi-family units. Eve Street, another entrance to Tropic Isle, is between the two parcels.

For Delray Place, the issue is parking. There is no exit to the south, only west to Federal and north to Linton, which results in traffic problems within the retail/dining project. As the SPRAB board members heard, expansion under the current proposal would require five-laning Tropic Boulevard.

According to Tropic Isle Homeowners Association President Kelli Freeman, the residents believe that the developer wants them to “solve his traffic problem” by creating a traffic problem for them. SPRAB board member James Chard told me that there seemed to have been “no serious discussion about alternatives.” Freeman told me that the developer “reached out early to some of the most vocal opponents, but he didn’t hear what we were saying.”

The board did approve two landscape waivers and a landscape plan for Delray Place South, but the board denied the big items—the site plan and a waiver to allow less parking. Freeman said there have been no discussions since the SPRAB meeting and that the developer has appealed the denials to the city commission.

I contacted the lawyer for Delray Place South but did not hear back by deadline for this post.

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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