Mizner 200 Marathon, a Higher Fire Fee, and a Coastal Commuter Rail

mizner 200

Mizner 200 meeting gets heated

The tone was set early on Monday when the Boca Raton City Council debated Mizner 200.

After the staff presentation on the condo project, attorney Robert Sweetapple addressed the council. Sweetapple’s record of lawsuits against the city goes back roughly three decades, and he clearly warned of another one if the council rejected the application from Sweetapple’s client, Elad Properties.

Previous city councils and the voters, Sweetapple lectured, vested downtown property owners with rights in order to revive what the city in 1980 had declared to be a blighted downtown. Mizner 200, Sweetapple said, met all the rules for downtown development in Ordinance 4035. “We are here at your invitation,” Sweetapple said, “to see if you’re going to keep your promise.”

Sweetapple then deferred to Bonnie Miskel, the lawyer who normally represents Elad. She went right after Townsend Place, the condo that would be Mizner 200’s neighbor to the south and whose residents oppose Mizner 200 either outright or as designed. Of Townsend Place, Miskel said, Mizner 200’s architects had worked to “mitigate their deficiencies,” such as a narrow, pedestrian-unfriendly sidewalk. Townsend Place residents have complained that Mizner 200 would stretch for more than 800 feet along Mizner Boulevard, but Miskel said Townsend Place takes up about 600 feet of its own.

So it was game on for the next five and a half hours: Elad versus Townsend Place and Investments Limited, which is the city’s largest downtown commercial property owner. One of the company’s holdings is Royal Palm Place, across the street from where Mizner 200 would go. Ironically, Sweetapple represented Investments Limited and company principal James Batmasian in some of those high-profile lawsuits against the city.

Investment Limited argued that, contrary to a staff report and a report by the city’s architectural consultant, Mizner 200 does not comply with Ordinance 4035. Investments Limited hired Jorge Camejo, Boca Raton’s former downtown director, to tell the council that Mizner 200 is a bad fit for the site.

Investments Limited architect Doug Mummaw then argued that while Mizner 200 met the requirement that downtown projects have 40 percent open space, Mizner 200’s open space would have little practical benefit for the public. Mummaw also was miffed about what he considered the lack of outreach from Elad. “No one has talked to us for a long time.”

After the predictable public comments, the lawyers took over again. These development decisions are modeled after trials. Speakers must be sworn, and they can be cross-examined. Suddenly, episodes of “Law and Order” and “Jerry Springer” broke out in the council chambers.

Sweetapple cross-examined Mummaw, Camejo, Robert Eisen, a former land-use attorney who also spoke for Investments Limited. He also cross-examined two lawyers —Peter Sachs and Michael Weiner—who represent a pair of Townsend Place residents and Boca Beautiful, whose president lives in Townsend Place.

Sweetapple’s tone ranged from condescending to belligerent. Weiner responded in kind. Things got personal. As City Attorney Diana Grub Frieser tried to referee, Sweetapple basically blew her off. It got nastier even than the anti-Semitic-flavored debate over Chabad East Boca.

You could sense that the council wanted a compromise, and that’s what the council is attempting. Rather than take a vote, the council delayed a decision until the Aug. 21 CRA meeting and asked Elad to make one more attempt to address the critics’ points. Maybe create a more park-like setting. Elad already has made several design revisions after meeting with the community appearance board.

Perhaps it will all work out. Council members made encouraging noises. But they were making up a lot of this on the fly, and they weren’t pushing back on criticism of staff and the consultant, Mellgren.

Mummaw, for example, noted that the consultant’s report said Mizner 200 “generally” complies with Ordinance 4035. The obvious implication was that the project doesn’t fully comply. Part of the ordinance, however, deals with objective standards—such as setbacks —and part deals with subjective standards. The report is the consultant’s interpretation of the ordinance. “Generally” is the normal term.

Investments Limited and Townsend Place, of course, interpret things differently. If that interpretation isn’t resolved by Aug. 21, my guess is that it will be resolved in a courtroom with the city as a defendant.

And parking talk

Before the marathon Mizner 200 debate, the city council had a much calmer discussion about downtown parking.

A representative of Kimley-Horn, the city’s consultant, presented the findings of a study from a long weekend in late March-early April. The salient point is that while only about 70 percent of downtown spaces were filled at peak demand, there weren’t enough spaces in the areas of highest demand, such as Mizner Park.

What to do? For now, get more information. Kimley-Horn will conduct a similar study in late October, to see if the pattern holds. The consultant also will expand the study to include private parking spaces. The report from last spring focused on public parking.

Council members wondered whether services such as Uber and Lyft and technology such as driverless cars would change the equation. If so, apparently, the changes won’t happen soon enough for the council to put off a decision.

Budget and tax rate time—and a higher “fire fee”

Cities are close to finalizing their budgets. Tonight, the Boca Raton City Council will set the maximum tax rate for next year. The combined rate for operating expenses and debt will be $3.68 per $1,000 of assessed value. At that rate, a home assessed at $400,000 would pay $1,472 to the city in property taxes.

Because the rate wouldn’t change, some council members might claim that they are “holding the line” on taxes. In fact, most property owners would pay more, because values have increased. To keep tax bills from rising, the rate would have to be $3.27. That increased revenue would allow the city to hire more employees and improve or meet demands for service. City Manager Leif Ahnell hasn’t yet determined the number of new hires.

In addition, however, the city proposed to raise the fire fee again—from $105 to $125 for homeowners. The increase would be higher for owners of commercial property. A city spokeswoman said the increase would go for “operations and pensions,” meaning the city’s annual contribution to the firefighters pension fund. Despite the agreement that cut benefits, the city’s contribution will be higher next year than it was in the 2013-14 budget year.

The Legislature first allowed cities to assess fire fees in 2000. Boca Raton started six years later. I can see an assessment for new stations—the voters approved one overwhelmingly in 2002—but the fee always has bothered me, whichever city is assessing it. Same goes for the garbage assessment on the water and sewer bill. Most residents would assume that their property taxes cover the cost of fire service and garage pickup.

For perspective, the council also raised the fire fee $20 a year ago. Another, similar increase would represent a nearly 50 percent increase in just two years. The city can call it a fee, but it’s more like a stealth tax.

Congregate living facility

On tonight’s Boca Raton City Council agenda is a project that the planning and zoning board rejected.

Goray Living wants to build an adult congregate living facility, which would include a memory care clinic, on five acres along Congress Avenue in the far northern section of the city. The project would have a link to the Marcus Neuroscience Center at Boca Raton Regional Hospital.

But the city has zoned that area for planned mobility development. The staff report concludes that the project would not be in keeping with that designation, because it would bring more traffic, not reduce it. City Manager Leif Ahnell recommends that the council introduce the ordinance tonight, and then deny it. It would require four votes, rather than a simple majority, to change the land-use designation in that area.

Coastal commuter rail?

As All Aboard Florida continues testing its Brightline passenger service trains in this area, planning continues for what South Florida officials hope will be a new commuter rail service through coastal downtowns.

Last week, the Delray Beach City Commission approved an agreement under which the community redevelopment agency will pay the city $100,000 for the cost of transit consulting by the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council. According to the document, the council will hold a public meeting—known as a charrette—on transit planning and prepare a master plan.

The Coastal Link station would be just north of Atlantic Avenue on the east side of the Florida East Coast Railway tracks. There are two now, to accommodate Brightline trains. The Boca Raton station most likely would be west of the FEC tracks near the downtown library. The station is one factor Boca Raton is considering as the city plans a new downtown campus.

With All Aboard Florida facing problems building the high-speed link for Brightline between West Palm Beach and Orlando, the company will focus less on tourists and more on commuters when service begins this fall. That strategy might reduce demand for the Coastal Link, but the only Brightline stations would be in West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami. Coastal Link stations would be in every city. Also, the Brightline ticket price—which company officials still haven’t announced—almost certainly would be higher than for a new Tri-Rail service.

Train safety

Speaking of Brightline, Boca Raton police were investigating a possible suicide Monday afternoon on the FEC tracks between 20th and 28 streets.

Safety certainly will be an issue when Brightline starts running those 32 trains a day. A spokeswoman said Monday that All Aboard Florida still intends to have the quiet zone between Boca Raton and West Palm Beach “operational” when service begins. She offered no specifics on how much work remains to implement the quiet zone.

Night Out vs. commission meeting

Delray Beach has moved next Tuesday’s city commission meeting back one day, to Wednesday. The Aug. 1 date conflicted with Night Out, the annual event designed to boost police-community relations. They have remained good in Delray Beach, despite tension in other areas, and the commission correctly considered that a higher priority than a schedule.

More threats to Ag Reserve

The latest threat to Palm Beach County’s Agricultural Reserve Area is a 50-acre project west of Delray Beach. It would contain commercial, residential and a hotel.

County staff correctly opposes the project, called Morning Star, because the developer seeks to “eliminate or circumvent the existing requirements” that protect this rare coastal farming area from the level of suburban-type development that could force out farming. In 1999, voters approved $100 million in bonds for a land-buying program to protect against this sort of threat.

The cover story is that the project would include “workforce” housing for middle-class employees now priced out of the market. In fact, putting such housing on one chunk of land wouldn’t fix the problem. Doing so also would undercut the will of the voters.

On Wednesday, the Palm Beach County Commission is scheduled to discuss the land-use change that the project would require. I will have more after the meeting.

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