Saturday, May 18, 2024

Is Boca National a Boondoggle? Plus, Lawsuit Updates and the School Tax Issue

Bob Rollins serves on the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District board. When I asked whether the proposed Boca Raton National Golf Course has become a boondoggle, Rollins allowed, “It has the earmarks of one.”

But Rollins consider himself “an optimist.” So he added, “I still think we can pull the project off.”

Perhaps, but the question is now much it would take to do that and who would pay?

Rollins and the four other district board members were to meet May 13 with the Boca Raton City Council. The city postponed that meeting to May 28 so council members could discuss the 35 pages of district responses to questions from the city about converting the closed Ocean Breeze course at Boca Teeca into the city’s new municipal golf center. That discussion will happen on May 13.

Everything might work out. At the moment, though, there’s much uncertainty and worry.

To review:

The district bought the 200 acres of Ocean Breeze for $24 million. The city underwrote bonds for that purchase, with the district repaying the city.

There remains, however, the cost of building a new course. The district has heard estimates from golf architects as low as $10 million and as high as $28 million. The district would operate the course.

District representatives repeatedly said the district could buy and renovate Ocean Breeze with only underwriting assistance from the city. They said the district could do so without compromising normal projects and without raising taxes. Yet it seems almost certain that at the May 28 meeting the district will ask the city for direct financial assistance toward construction.

So did the district get into this project too quickly and too deeply?

“I wouldn’t say that just yet,” Rollins said. “It was a dramatic undertaking. I can’t say if it was a good decision.”

And what about those optimistic financial predictions from Art Koski—the district’s former director/lawyer/project manager who now is overseeing Boca National—and the district’s financial consultant? Are they accurate?

District board member Craig Ehrnst said, “It depends.” He notes that the district didn’t have that estimate of $28 million until recently. Ehrnst said the answer depends on how much the payments to the city would be for a second loan to finance the renovation.

“I am very concerned,” Ehrnst said, “about the district’s financial ability to build Boca National and fund other activities or future projects upfront.” He acknowledged, “I am not sure everyone is on board” because of the cost. He is hopeful that “the city becomes an equal partner in Boca National.” Ehrnst also called Koski “a visionary.”

District board member Steven Engel said, “I think we can keep up with what is currently on our plate” by taking on Boca National. But he thinks that there would be “no money for upcoming projects”—Phase II of de Hoernle Park, renovation of the community center at Patch Reef Park and permanent resurfacing of path Reef’s tennis courts.” He also said Boca National would require an operating subsidy from the district until it made money.

In her letter to the city, Interim Executive Director Briann Harms said the district would need “significant support and financial contributions” from the city to complete Boca National. She suggested that the city use some of the $65 million from the sale of Boca Raton’s current municipal course on Glades Road.

So many elements are in play. Compson Associates could formally propose a deal in which the developer buys the Ocean Strand property, with the proceeds going to build the new course and finance the roughly $30 million master plan makeover of Gumbo Limbo Nature Center. The district owns Ocean Strand, but the city would have to rezone the property to allow a Ritz-Carlton hotel.

City Councilman Andy Thomson said, “It’s vitally important that we get this right.” It’s not clear yet that getting there is possible.

The Lauzier lawsuit

Former Delray Beach City Manager Mark Lauzier

Mark Lauzier’s lawsuit against Delray Beach comes as no surprise.

After the city commission fired him on March 1 at a special meeting called with 72 hours notice, the former city manager disputed the allegations against him. Delray Beach’s internal auditor had claimed that Lauzier violated the city charter on hiring and salaries. Mayor Shelly Petrolia allowed public comment only before the charges against Lauzier had been revealed.

When Petrolia orchestrated the firing of former City Attorney Max Lohmanlast November—springing it unannounced on the night of the midterm election—talk around Delray Beach was that she would next go after Lauzier. Then the talk mostly stopped.

Now Lauzier alleges that Petrolia orchestrated his ouster because the mayor wanted to take her son—at city expense—on the commission’s lobbying trip to Tallahassee and had charged it to her city credit card. Lauzier alleges that Petrolia’s husband—a day after Lauzier questioned the son’s trip—reimbursed the city for what the lawsuit contends was an illegal card charge.

The lawsuit includes a copy of a check to the city from Petrolia’s husband. It includes a copy of Lauzier’s written objection to Petrolia billing the city for her son’s cost. The meeting to fire Lauzier came four days later.

There’s a potential timetable issue in Lauzier’s allegation. City Commissioner Ryan Boylston said his first meeting with the auditor was the week before, which would predate Lauzier’s questioning of the credit card charge.

Lauzier got no money, since the commission fired him for cause. He wants a severance equal to that in his contract. The commission might decide to settle quickly and make the case go away. Fighting it long enough would lead to discovery and possibly a deposition of Petrolia. City Attorney Lynn Gelin no doubt soon will call an executive session—not open to the public—to sound out commissioners on how they want to respond.

Oceanfront duplex lawsuit

A lawsuit over Boca Raton’s denial of a four-story, oceanfront duplex is moving quickly.

In February, the city council rejected Azure Development’s request for a variance to build east of the Coastal Construction Control Line. The property is at 2600 N. Ocean Blvd. Attorneys for Azure all but said litigation would follow denial. The lawsuit appealing the council’s unanimous decision came March 28.

But a related—and perhaps more important—lawsuit came March 15. This one is a demand for public records and is the one that’s moving.

Azure essentially claims that city staff recommended denial not on the science but because of pressure from council members who had promised in advance to reject the project and needed legal cover to do so. During the council hearing, attorney Robert Sweetapple asked Mayor Scott Singer and council members Monica Mayotte and Andrea O’Rourke to recuse themselves because of what Sweetapple claimed were prejudicial comments. All three refused. The lawsuit cites an email from Singer from last summer, when he was running in the special election.

Those records, Azure believes, will help the developers make their case. Among other things, the plaintiffs claim that they didn’t get many of their requested records until Jan. 15. That was five days after the Environmental Advisory Board (EAB) recommended that the council deny the variance. The lawsuit also alleges that city officials didn’t tell EAB members about the public records requests.

According to the lawsuit, failure to produce the records “significantly prejudiced” Azure, which made its first document request in March 2018. Next week, the plaintiff’s attorneys will depose Nora Fosman, Boca Raton’s senior environmental officer, City Manager Leif Ahnell, City Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke and City Attorney Diana Grub Frieser. Future depositions will involve the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District and the citizens group Save Our Beaches.

Azure also wants to depose Kirt Rusenko, Gumbo Limbo Nature Center’s marine conservationist. He advised the city on potential damage to turtle nests from the duplex.

As I have written, the likely end game for the developers is to have the city or the beach and park district buy 2600 for $7.5 million. That’s the value from an appraisal the district commissioned when the agency and the city discussed buying vacant beachfront property. But that appraisal is conditioned on approval of the variance.

Azure’s appeal of the denial likely won’t proceed until resolution of the public records lawsuit.

School tax update

boca schools

If Gov. Ron DeSantis goes along—as he likely will— the Palm Beach County School District will have to give charter schools about $22 million a year from the tax that voters approved last year. The charters will get that money even though the ballot language specified that revenue would go only to traditional public schools.

About two dozen counties passed similar tax increases last year, to make up some of the money the Legislature has shorted school districts in recent years. Only Palm Beach County made clear that charters wouldn’t get anything.

State Rep. Mike Caruso, who represents Boca Raton and parts of Delray Beach, voted with his Republican colleagues to overturn the voters’ will. Though the item was part of broader legislation that included the annual sales tax holiday, Caruso’s vote could hurt his constituents. Boca Raton uses the city’s public schools to recruit businesses. Delray Beach wants to improve and basically rebrand its school to draw more middle-class residents.

Palm Beach County School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri, who represents Boca Raton, told me that the district’s lobbyists tried to exempt Palm Beach County because of the ballot wording. If DeSantis signs the bill, the school board almost certainly will vote to sue. And should.

Student apartments

At tonight’s meeting, the Boca Raton Planning and Zoning Board will consider a proposal for what appears to be a student-oriented apartment complex near Florida Atlantic University.

The parcel in question is across the El Rio Canal from FAU’s eastern border. The developer wants a land-use change that would allow a four-story, 182-unit multi-family development at 2600 Northwest Fifth Avenue. The units would have three bedrooms and three bathrooms.

That parcel is roughly eight acres. A Chicago-based group owns it and previous tried to have rezoned to accommodate student housing. The owner bought the site in 2015 for $6 million.

The applicant wants to package the new complex with the Connected Life Christian Church to the south. So the project is proposed for 12 acres. City planners recommend denial because the land use change would not be compatible with the surrounding single-family neighborhoods. The staff also suggests that the developer incorporated the church to reduce overall density.

Boca Raton has discussed a broad plan that would transform that part of the city into a student-oriented district, but that plan has stalled.

Parc at Broken Sound apartments

Also before the planning and zoning board is another project that would continue the shift in the Parc at Broken Sound from commercial to residential.

A developer wants to tear down about 100,000 square feet of office space and replace it with 297 apartments in a dozen buildings—half of them six stories and half of them two stories. The project would be combined with an adjacent office complex. The density is about one-fourth lower than allowed.

No more than 2,500 residential are permitted under the Planned Mobility Development rules that govern the Parc at Broken Sound. This project would bring the number to 2,223. The developer would add two shelters for the shuttle that services the business park. By a 4-1 vote, the community appearance board recommended approval. So does the staff report.

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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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