New Tower at Gumbo Limbo, Another Petrolia Ethics Complaint, and More

gumbo limbo
Old observation tower at Gumbo Limbo, photo by Dtobias via Wikimedia Commons

Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, happier developments are taking place in Boca Raton. Among them: progress toward replacing the popular tower at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center.

Over three decades, beginning in the mid-1980s, thousands upon thousands of Boca Raton residents and visitors climbed the tower to see the wonderful views and feel the stiff sea breeze. Four years ago, after time, exposure and hurricanes had weakened it, officials declared the tower unsafe, and it was torn down.

Replacing it got caught up in the fractured relationship between the city and the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District. The city owns the land, but the district covers operations, maintenance and capital projects.

There was disagreement over what the tower would cost because it would have to meet Americans With Disabilities Act standards. Congress passed the ADA in 1990, after the tower was built.

Friends of Gumbo Limbo, whose fundraising helps to support the center, proposed a cable-driven elevator known as a funicular. Estimates showed, however, that such a project would cost too much to build and operate.

So now the tower will include an ADA-compliant switchback ramp. Briann Harms, the district’s executive director, said the “high-end” construction estimate is $1.2 million. Friends of Gumbo Limbo will pay roughly half and the district will pay the balance. Like its predecessor, the tower will be 40 feet tall.

The key moment in the fundraising campaign came when the Kosowsky family pledged $250,000 toward the tower. The viewing platform will be called Jacob’s Outlook in memory of Jacob Kosowsky.

He graduated from Boca Raton High School in 2016 and was a student at Vanderbilt University when he died in a car crash in Utah two years ago. The Friends of Gumbo Limbo website says the naming honors Jacob Kosowsky’s “passion for family, the ocean, sea life and conservation.” The campaign’s goal is $500,000.

A city spokeswoman said the bid for the design contract should be on the Jan. 12 city council agenda. Work could start within a year. Gumbo Limbo itself has been closed since the pandemic began. The new boardwalk throughout the property is complete.

Lauzier accuses Petrolia of ethics violation

In late October, former Delray Beach City Manager Mark Lauzier filed a verbal complaint with the county’s Office of Inspector General. One of his three issues concerned Mayor Shelly Petrolia and was referred to the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics.

According to the office’s memorandum from the meeting, Lauzier said Petrolia approached him with the idea of holding an event to honor members of the city’s advisory boards. Lauzier agreed and proposed “a banquet at a golf course” with attendees paying $20 or $25. The event should have a cash bar, Lauzier said, because the city can’t pay for alcohol.

Petrolia, Lauzier said, disagreed. She wanted the event at Old School Square. It would be “a cocktail party with drinks and horderves (sic) which turned in essence to a ‘political campaign stop.'” The memo does not provide a date, but Lauzier started work in late 2017 and Petrolia was running for mayor in March 2018.

Lauzier said he assigned two staff members to work with Petrolia and plan the event, which “ended up costing significantly more than it would have cost at the golf course.” According to Lauzier, “Petrolia stated that she will find a way to plan the cocktail party.”

Petrolia asked Lauzier’s secretary “to contact the professional engineering firms that were doing business with the city to figure out a way they could split the bill to cover the cost of the bar.” The memo said all of the businesses “were currently under contract with the city and had been before the commission a few months prior.”

Lauzier was fired in March 2019. After that, he filed a public records request seeking “communications for all cocktail party planning records.” Four companies split the $1,000 bar bill. Lauzier told investigators that Petrolia’s political consultant “arranged” the payments.

Lauzier said his records request produced “thank you letters and a list of companies.” According to Lauzier, the companies “were asked, ‘I’m sure you would like to contribute to a cocktail appreciation party.'” Lauzier told the inspector general staff members that the event amounted to a “quid pro quo.”

In a Nov. 24 letter to Lauzier, an OIG staffer explained that the office has referred that issue to the ethics commission. That office will determine whether there is probable cause to file charges. Lauzier first took his complaint to the public corruption unit of the state attorney’s office, which took no action.

Another part of the complaint, the letter says, related to Lauzier’s wrongful termination lawsuit and is not within the office’s jurisdiction. (A calendar call on that lawsuit is scheduled for next month.)

Lauzier’s third issue, which the office referred to the city attorney’s office, also concerns Petrolia.

After Petrolia became mayor, she and Lauzier disagreed on who had control over the agenda for commission meetings. Lauzier said the city had wrongly allowed the mayor to set the agenda when that authority actually rested with the manager.

In April 2018, in a presentation to the commission, then City-Attorney Max Lohman agreed with Lauzier. After that, Lauzier said, Lohman went onto a “hit list.” Seven months later, Petrolia engineered Lohman’s departure at a meeting when the topic was not on the agenda. She made a motion to fire Lohman, who then submitted his resignation.

Lohman had been a private attorney working on a contract with the city. The commission replaced Lohman with Lynn Gelin, who had been on the city’s legal staff.

Since then, Gelin has been a key figure in the firings of Lauzier and George Gretsas.

On Wednesday, Gelin said, “I have not received anything” from the inspector general’s office but was “made aware” of the letter to Lauzier. She wants to read the complaint “so that I can get some insight as to (Lauzier’s) allegations.”

Long withstands removal attempt

Rob Long remains a member of the Delray Beach Planning and Zoning Board.

The effort by Petrolia and City Commissioner Julie Casale to remove Long for sending an email about the city’s water quality receded at Tuesday’s meeting. Discussion actually shifted at one point to the issue Long raised–the level of cancer-causing chemicals.

“I’ve been thinking about it a lot,” said Commissioner Ryan Boylston, who appointed Long to the board and opposed his removal. “I drink my water right out of the tap, and people tell me I’m crazy.”

The issue is polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that are known as “forever chemicals.” The level in Delray Beach’s water is lower than the federal government advises, but some states have stricter standards.

Florida has set no standard. Boylston wonders if Delray Beach should set one. At the very least, he said, the city could do more outreach with suggestions–such as carbon filters–for residents concerned about the chemicals. The state has ordered Delray Beach to check PFAS levels for a year.

Progress at Camino Real and Third Avenue

The last blighted portion of downtown Boca Raton looks empty but less blighted.

That would be the nine-acre site near Camino Real and Third Avenue. It was home to a Winn Dixie supermarket, which closed 10 years ago. Other storefronts then began emptying.

Kimco, which owns the site, proposed 350 rental units in a venture with the real estate division of sugar grower Florida Crystals. The city council, acting as the community redevelopment agency, approved the project on the condition that the developers make improvements on Camino Real where it intersects with Dixie Highway and Third Avenue. Those improvements will include bike lanes on both sides of Camino Real.

The city issued a demolition permit in September and construction fencing surrounds the empty site. In addition, the city acquired a sliver of the nearby Fresh Market shopping center for right of way.

The developers can’t get a building permit until they get permits from the county for the road improvements. Camino Real is a county road. The improvements must be complete before the city issues a certificate of occupancy for the apartments.

So much remains. But there’s progress.