End of Ties Between Haynie and Batmasians Hardly the End of it; More Boca News

Mayor Susan Haynie

Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie said Tuesday that her husband’s property management company would end its contract with a condo community in which James and Marta Batmasian own 80 percent of the units.

The Batmasians are Boca Raton’s largest downtown property owners. In 2013, Haynie sought and received an advisory opinion from the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics that she could vote on matters related to the Batmasians. A Palm Beach Post article alleged that the ruling did not apply to votes Haynie took.

With her decision, Haynie said, she “hopes to put the matter to rest.” That won’t happen.

Haynie made her announcement after the council voted to open up the process by which council members and employees request ethics opinions. Requests must go to all council members, and the requests must name the council member/employee and the potential conflict regarding voting or gifts. So must correspondence between the commission staff and the city attorney’s office. All council members must get notice of the opinion, favorable or not. All of this will go on the city’s website.

The council made these changes because city policy had been that requests were known only to the council member/employee unless it involved a decision by the council. Requests also didn’t have to list the name of the official or the potential conflict. Haynie’s request listed neither her nor Batmasian.

In addition, Ethics Commission Executive Director Mark Bannon—a former sheriff’s deputy—addressed the council Tuesday at the council’s invitation. He noted that while elected officials may receive a favorable opinion, votes then must align with the facts presented to obtain the opinion. That will be the question with Haynie’s votes on Batmasian issues. A complaint argues that the votes fell outside the opinion. Bannon hinted strongly at that issue during his presentation to the council.

Haynie’s action addresses the potential problem of James Batmasian’s redevelopment of Royal Palm Place, which could come before the council next year. It does not address her larger problem—the perception that she was sneaky about the relationship between the company and the Batmasians. It does not answer the question of why Haynie and/or her husband didn’t end the $12,00-per-year contract in 2013, when ethics commissioners raised questions about the relationship before approving the opinion.

Haynie continues to defend herself with the opinion, which City Attorney Diana Grub Frieser handled. Haynie said the “customer/client” is the condo association, not the Batmasians. We will learn soon if that defense works.

Closer look at Midtown, Wildflower and school crowding

During their five-hour workshop meeting on Monday, Boca Raton City Council discussed three important issues: Midtown, the waterfront plan and school crowding. On the first two, extended discussion led to little direction. On the third, council members did something helpful and might actually have learned something.

Let’s look at all three:

Midtown

Councilman Scott Singer summed up the session on Midtown. It will be difficult, he said, to “harmonize” the various positions on redevelopment of those roughly 300 acres east of Town Center Mall.

Start with the proposed second Tri-Rail station near Boca Center. Property owners want to build the city’s projected 2,500 residential units for Midtown with or without the station. The planning and zoning board recommended that the city allow 600 units before the station is built and the rest afterward. The staff recommendation, which became public Monday, is that the city allow no residential until the station is built. That might not happen until 2020 at the earliest.

Then there’s building height. The property owners want a limit of 145 feet, the height of the tallest building in Midtown. The staff recommends a maximum of 105 feet, which developers could obtain only through incentives, with buildings starting at three stories.

Property owners want a minimum of 500 square feet for dwelling units. The city wants a minimum of 700 square feet and an average of 900. The property owners commissioned a market study showing that their units would rent. Asked whether the study met the city’s requirement, Deputy City Manager George Brown answered, “Minimally.”

Staff and the owners agree on some points, but they disagree on many more. There also was little discussion about whether the city should create a special taxing district through which property would pay for public works improvement to change Midtown into a neighborhood that blends residential and commercial.

“How did the Tri-Rail station become so fundamentally important?” asked Councilman Robert Weinroth. Brown called it essential to the transit-oriented nature of the new Midtown. “Why not a uniform 145-foot height?” Staff defended the limits as necessary to create a “walkable” environment. Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke reiterated her call for a Midtown master plan.

The purpose of workshops and planning and zoning board reviews is to resolve as many issues related to development projects as possible before the proposal reaches the council. That hasn’t happened with Midtown.

On Tuesday, the council introduced the two ordinances and a rezoning that would—six years late—set rules for what the city in 2010 designated as an area of Planned Mobility Development. That could put the first public hearing on the agenda for the Jan. 8 regular council meeting. It will be one of three meetings that day because council members compressed the schedule so they could attend Palm Beach County Days that week in Tallahassee.

Because the city has waited on Midtown, the new element is the threat of a lawsuit. A Nov. 7 letter from Crocker Partners, the largest property owner, contends that several key staff recommendations are unconstitutional.

Crocker’s managing partner, Angelo Bianco, said requiring a Tri-Rail station is not just illegal but also “unnecessary and arbitrary.” Developers, he said, already have rules that limit what they can build based upon a project’s traffic impact. That’s known as concurrency.

Regarding the 2,500 units, Bianco said citywide zoning for multi-family housing—which all the property owners intend to build—could mean a cap of 6,000 units. The city, Bianco said, used 2,500 because that is the cap for the similarly zoned region in and around The Park at Broken Sound.

Regarding O’Rourke’s call for a master plan, Bianco said, “She’s going to see one, just not now.” The property owners, he said, can’t spend the millions on design plans “until we know what the rules are.” Regarding Brown’s comment about the market study, Bianco said, “Minimally to me means, ‘yes.’”

Council approval of the staff recommendations, Bianco said, would amount to “a de facto moratorium.” In Florida, local governments can’t impose building moratoriums without supporting evidence. The three property owners, Bianco said, project a $1 billion investment in Midtown over 10 years with an estimated $1 billion in profits. Those numbers would be part of any lawsuit by the owners.

One could blithely dismiss the lawsuit threat, as BocaWatch Publisher Al Zucaro did on Monday. One also could recall the many successful South Florida lawsuits against local governments that tried to stop a development for political and not legal reasons.

Ideally, the city and the Midtown property owners would negotiate between now and Jan. 8 to reach more of a consensus. If that doesn’t happen, the system will have failed. The effects will sort themselves out.

Wildflower

Apparently, no expense is too great when it comes to the Wildflower property and Silver Palm Park.

The council heard a presentation from the city’s waterfront consultant, EDSA. Company principal Kona Gray said the goal is to “connect everyone to a waterfront park.” Actually, the goal sounds more like pleasing those who believe that Wildflower/Silver Palm can be Boca Raton’s version of Riverwalk in San Antonio.

Early on, EDSA envisioned a makeover of several parks. Now, however, the Wildflower has become “crucial.” Those roughly six acres are a “magical spot” that can lead to “future prosperity.” There could be an event pavilion and a food kiosk. Downtown employees could walk there and have lunch.

These “big ideas,” as Gray called them, would create much more than the passive park touted by residents who opposed leasing the Wildflower property for a restaurant. The $4.3 million for improvements to the Wildflower this year and next are based on the property being a “passive park.” Gray now calls Wildflower/Silver Palm such an opportunity that the council really should acquire the vacant property next to the Wildflower at Palmetto Park Road and Northeast Fifth Avenue where Maxwell’s Chop House stood. At any price?

Gray at least recommended that the Wildflower have 55 parking spaces. Some Wildflowers had recommended no parking. The spaces would be “green,” meaning that there would be no pavement.

Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke, who lives in the Golden Triangle neighborhood near the Wildflower, again embraced the “big ideas.” Jeremy Rodgers and Scott Singer also were supportive. That makes a majority.

Beyond enthusiasm, however, those council members gave no direction. So as momentum builds for Wildflower/Silver Palm, here are some pertinent questions:

  • What does the council want at Wildflower/Silver Palm?
  • How much would a plan cost? With Monday’s presentation, EDSA completed its contract. To get price estimates on any project, the council must approve another work order for EDSA. Gray said revenue from Wildflower/Silver Palm could “self-fund a lot of the project.” What revenue does he mean?
  • Would plans for what enthusiasts see as this active spot conform with the ordinance that restricts city-owned waterfront land to four public uses?
  • What about that vacant lot? Is the council willing to meet the price of an owner whose previous offers the city has rejected as way too high? The city already paid $7.5 million for the Wildflower property.
  • Should the council delay any decision on plans for Wildflower/Silver Palm until after deciding on the lot?
  • What about the boat launch at Silver Palm? It’s the only motorized launch in the city. Next month, the Marine Advisory Board will hear a presentation on Silver Palm. Chairman Gene Folden told me that the board is “aligned” in favor of retaining parking spots for boaters at Silver Palm, which is close to the Boca Raton Inlet. Though the city could allow motorized launches at the remade Lake Wyman/Rutherford Park, Folden said that move would be designed more for expansion than replacement.
  • What about the other parks? Gray said Red Reef Park is “a little tired.” EDSA designed Spanish River Park in 1970. It needs updating. Both are very popular. Gumbo Limbo Nature Center needs more parking.

Perhaps Wildflower/Silver Palm could become a bustling place. Or it could become a very expensive neighborhood park for the Golden Triangle and surrounding neighborhoods. Perhaps the city could finance a big park makeover with a bond based on revenue from the 10-year sales tax surcharge.

Work already has begun to remake Lake Wyman/Rutherford Park and complete Hillsboro/El Rio Park. The list of park needs, though, is longer than Wildflower/Silver Palm.

School crowding

Boca Raton City Council members heard Monday from the Palm Beach County School District that schools aren’t crowded because the city has approved large development projects. Schools are crowded because young families are flocking to Boca Raton.

I gave the council a preview of the district’s presentation in my blog post last Thursday, which was based on an interview with a member of the school district’s demographics and planning team. That reality may not please the no-growth crowd, but the fact is that single-family neighborhoods are driving the increase in public school students.

Council members also got a shock when Director of Planning Kris Garrison told them that the Legislature had cut by 25 percent the amount of property tax school districts can levy for capital projects. Over 10 years, Garrison said, the district lost about $900 million. “That would pay for a lot of schools,” Councilman Jeremy Rodgers understated. Still, Rodgers kept asking why money from Boca Raton didn’t come back to Boca Raton. “We had no money,” Garrison said.

The district team also dispelled the myth that they don’t pay attention when schools become overcrowded. The district shifted boundaries to relieve crowding at Calusa Elementary in the northwest and will shift other boundaries to relieve crowding at Boca Raton High School. That will be possible because of money from the sales-tax surcharge that BocaWatch opposed. So please ignore any supposed informed commentary from that source on the subject of school crowding.

When the session ended, the council pledged to revive the education task force and made good on the pledge at its meeting the next night. Council members also discussed donating land near Don Estridge Middle for an elementary school. Garrison asked for rezoning that would allow the new Verde Elementary to be taller and thus hold more students, also relieving overcrowding.

The task force, which I recommended last week, is a good start toward discussing school solutions based on facts, not myths. Some of those myths die hard, but after Monday they should be on life support.

Relationship between insurance and inspections

Boca Raton has won a wonky sort of distinction that could save residents money.

The Insurance Services Office rates local governments on how strictly they enforce building codes. That information goes to property underwriters and can mean lower premiums for residents. Sadly, the discount only applies to new properties—built under newer tougher codes —and properties that go through major renovations.

Still, in Florida any potential insurance saving matters. So the next time you complain about a Boca building inspector being picky, that pickiness could pay off.