Face Masks, Nonprofits and Another Sneak Attack on the Ag Reserve

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Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

There now are emergency orders to wear masks while doing essential business in Boca Raton, Delray Beach. In the strict sense, however, they aren’t orders.

The cities made the move last week. Palm Beach County followed with its own order that took effect Monday. It states that “all persons working in, patronizing, or otherwise physically present in grocery stores, restaurants, pharmacies, construction sites, public transit vehicles, vehicles for hire, and locations where social distancing measures are not possible should wear facial coverings as defined by the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

“All other persons physically present in any public place in Palm Beach County are strongly urged to wear facial coverings as defined by the CDC.”

The key word is “should,” as opposed to “shall.” Delray Beach had been “asking” residents and visitors to wear masks in similar situations. Boca Raton has been “encouraging.” Last week, however, WPTV-Channel 5 mistakenly reported that the city would be enforcing, not encouraging, by charging violators with a criminal misdemeanor. The station corrected its story.

County Commissioner Robert Weinroth said, “I think we’re all pretty much in the same place now.” In other words, elected officials are asking their constituents to place community well being over self-interest. For some, as you will see, that seems to be hard.

Delray curfew still on

Meanwhile, Delray Beach’s midnight-to-6 a.m. curfew remains in effect through May 1. A city spokeswoman, however, said that could change “depending on the county, state or federal guidance and/or local needs.” Neither Boca Raton nor the county has imposed a curfew.

Meeting—virtually

The Boca Raton City Council made news Monday just by holding three meetings.

For the first time, council members participated remotely. The livestream feed positioned their faces in the same places as their chairs on the dais, with Mayor Scott Singer in the middle. When I used Safari as my browser, the audio was faulty. It worked fine after I switched to Firefox.

As advertised, the council took no action at any of the meetings, aside from renaming Jeremy Rodgers as vice mayor and choosing members to represent the city on outside boards. No one chose to make public comment while the meetings were in progress, but advance questions came from three residents. The discussion showed what council members are hearing from the public several weeks into the COVID-19 restrictions.

Two questioners asked about the closure of the public boat ramp at Silver Palm Park. After some back and forth, City Attorney Diana Frieser said that because the county has ordered all ramps closed to recreational boaters—no “should” language there—the city has no choice.

At best, the council might allow commercial fisherman to use the ramp. Even that break, however, could come with problems. The city might have to allow only people who had commercial licenses before the emergency declaration, not all those who applied for a license as a means to keep hitting the water. And maybe those fishermen would need to make an appointment.

Another question was whether the council would allow City Manager Leif Ahnell to keep issuing virus restrictions “by decree.” Ahnell closed restaurants, bars and the beach before other cities.

Most council members, though, noted that Ahnell doesn’t make those decisions unilaterally. Monica Mayotte told me, “He calls all of us. I’m sure if there was pushback from three of us, he’d hold off.”

Given how fast virus-related events are moving and the requirements of advertising a meeting at which the council might vote on such decisions, council members believe the current system is working. They like that Boca Raton moved early. Though Singer said, “I want to look ahead,” no one is ready to advocate any easing.

No place to roam

What’s bugging Boca Raton residents most about the restrictions? They want to recreate, but much public recreation space is off-limits.

Mayotte said police still are stopping between 30 and 40 people each day who want to use the beach. After the city closed all parks, Ahnell said, pickleball players kept using the new courts at Hillsboro El Rio Park South until the city took down the nets.

At one small neighborhood park, young people kept gathering to play basketball. City workers put zip ties on the nets, but then someone cut the zip ties. The city has removed some nets.

Another complaint is that, with gyms closed, more people want to walk or bike along A1A. Larger crowds make it harder to socially distance.

To all of these queries—“thousands of questions,” Ahnell said—the council was reasonably diplomatic but resolved to “stay the course,” as Mayotte put it. If A1A is crowded, Andrea O’Rourke said, “Take a side street.” She asked resident to “have patience.”

Undercutting voters at the Ag Reserve—again

ag reserve

While most local governments postpone controversial items, the Lake Worth Drainage District plans to move ahead Wednesday with a very bad idea.

The district is the second-level flood control public agency—after the South Florida Water Management District —for the area roughly between Boca Raton and West Palm Beach. It generated controversy in Boca Raton and Delray Beach the last two years with its aggressive program to clear canal banks.

Five supervisors, whom large landowners elect, set policy. At their 8:30 a.m. meeting Wednesday, the supervisors will decide whether to seek bids for development rights along some of the agency’s canals within the Agricultural Reserve Area. In 1999, voters approved $100 million in bonds to buy land and preserve as much farming as possible within the reserve.

Under county rules, developers must preserve an acre of land for every home they build in the reserve. The drainage district would sell rights to 313 acres of its roughly 600 acres of rights of way, thus allowing the successful bidder to build 313 homes.

The problem is that the land along the canals is worthless to developers. As public right of way, it’s sole purpose is to allow easy access for maintenance of the canals. But the deal would allow construction on vital land within the agricultural reserve—undercutting the intent of the voters who approved those bonds—while the drainage district collects what could amount to $22 million.

“There is zero public benefit” from the proposal, said Lisa Interlandi, executive director of the Everglades Law Center. She notes that Palm Beach County—which would have to approve the homes—rejected a similar proposal five years ago.

Not only is the district meeting at a terrible time for public attendance in normal times, the public won’t be able to attend in person because of COVID-19 restrictions. Interlandi and other critics—including the Coalition of Boynton West Residential Associations (COBWRA)—argue that the district should have delayed this decision until restrictions can be eased.

Again because of the restrictions, the district will accept public comment only until noon Tuesday. People can email comments to rwalker@lwdd.net. COBWRA also is inviting people to join its petition against the sale. Here’s the link: https://www.cobwra.org/call-to-action-lake-worth-drainage-district/

According to the staff memo, the district should act now because the money could go toward “mission critical” projects and could become essential if property values decline because of the virus. If the supervisors ask for bids, they would choose a winner on June 10.

That winner no doubt would be GL Homes, the largest builder in the Agricultural Reserve Area. Only GL has bid recently on preserve land. In addition, GL previously floated with the county a proposal to preserve a large property it owns near West Palm Beach in exchange for permission to build homes in the reserve.

That plan also would have harmed the reserve, but it at least would have had some public benefit. The drainage district proposal offers much to GL and nothing to the public because it would “protect” unbuildable land.

Nonprofits struggling

Nonprofit groups face an existential challenge from COVID-19. Needs are rising as donations are falling.

So at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, the Junior League of Boca Raton will hold a virtual workshop for nonprofits – “Where do we go from here? Seeking Clarity in Uncertain Times: Funding, Crisis Management and Staying Relevant in the Midst of the COVID-19 Crisis.”

Kirsten Stevens, CEO of the Delray Beach-based Kannico Agency, will moderate the discussion. To participate, register at JLBR.org/Nonprofit-Assistance.