Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Update on Boca Concierge Lawsuit, Petrolia’s Power Play and Other News

Eradicating blight won out over traffic concerns last week when the Boca Raton Planning and Zoning Board debated Camino Square.

Despite the staff recommendation to deny the project, the board voted unanimously that the city council should approve it. Of course, unanimously in this case meant 4-0, rather than 7-0. One seat is vacant. One member recused himself. A third was absent.

The project calls for 350 apartments—in a pair of eight-story towers—and some retail space on the site of the former Winn-Dixie shopping center near Camino Real and Southwest Third Avenue. Although the property is vacant and blighted, neighbors expressed concern about the traffic from all those new residents, not to mention the retail, which remains unspecified. That would be Phase 2 of the project.

One board member wondered if Kimco, which owns the roughly nine-acre site, would be willing to ask for 100 fewer apartments as a condition of approval, to ease the traffic. Kimco’s attorney responded that the project could be even larger—with 10-story towers—and still meet downtown development rules. In Kimco’s mind, the company already is giving the city a break. So the answer was no.

Traffic currently backs up along Camino Real west of Dixie Highway. City planners noted that in 2015 Boca Raton canceled road improvements at the Camino-Dixie intersection because of fears that the work would affect the historic Addison Mizner offices on the southeast corner. One board member said he intended to support the project as a way to put pressure on the city to help with traffic solutions. The comment did not seem to mollify Camino Square’s opponents in the audience.

The real estate arm of Florida Crystals would build the apartments. The plan would be to construct a roundabout at the intersection of Camino Real, Camino Gardens Boulevard and Southwest Second Avenue to make traffic flow more smoothly. The board also attached a condition under which the developer would build a southbound left-turn lane where Third Avenue meets Camino Real, to avoid backups farther west. Development Services Director Brandon Schaad said, “I’m fine with that.”

Board member Larry Snowden said Camino Square would “make a bad traffic situation worse,” but it also would “remove blight.” The CRA’s main mission is to eradicate blight. The project likely will go to the city council—acting as the community redevelopment agency—next month. Given the conflict between the staff recommendation and the planning and zoning board’s decision, it’s hard to predict what the council will decide.

Concierge lawsuit

But it’s easy to predict what the Boca Raton City Council will do Tuesday on the proposed settlement of the Concierge lawsuit. The council will approve it.

At least, one hopes.

The settlement is necessary to undo what Mayor Scott Singer and Council members Monica Mayotte and Andrea O’Rourke did in July. They rejected the application for the senior downtown living center for which the staff had recommended approval. Singer at least stuck to the issues before the council—mainly parking. Mayotte and O’Rourke suggested that the project would bring too many old people downtown.

Because of those comments, the property owner had filed notice of a lawsuit under the Bert Harris Act and citing the Fair Housing Act. A senior advocacy group had joined a separate lawsuit seeking to overturn the council’s decision.

Under the settlement proposal of that lawsuit, which is before the CRA today, the developer would slightly reduce the number of units. That would reduce the need for parking spaces. The compromise would allow the project to go forward and thus should eliminate the possibility of the lawsuit from the property owner.

After the CRA meeting, the city council will hold a special meeting to approve the settlement. That vote is necessary because the lawsuit names the city and the CRA.

Who knows why Mayotte, O’Rourke and Singer voted as they did. Councilman Jeremy Rodgers was the exception. The special election was looming, with Singer running to be the elected mayor after rising from deputy after the suspension of Susan Haynie. Mayotte’s and O’Rourke’s campaign against “overdevelopment,” combined with BocaWatch’s claim that the council approved too much development might have come into play.

Whatever the motivation, they made a mistake. If this settlement holds, the remaining question will be whether a similar compromise can end the Midtown lawsuits.

GL Homes golf course sale update

Also on the Boca Raton City Council’s Wednesday agenda is the fifth amendment to the sale of the western golf course to GL Homes.

I reported last week that Palm Beach County has approved GL’s development plan for the 200 acres. But the city and GL still are working out—with the county—ownership and operation of a cell phone tower on roughly three acres of the site. Resolution may mean that GL keeps the course open even after the sale closes in May. That will require coordination with the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District. A lot remains unresolved.

Delray power play?

Delray Beach Mayor Shelly Petrolia

Delray Beach prides itself on having received three All-America City awards. Last week’s forced resignation of City Attorney Max Lohman, however, is the sort of cheap power play that happens in bad cities.

No mention of Lohman’s status was on the agenda for Tuesday’s city commission meeting. It was the night of the midterm elections, so the public’s attention was elsewhere. Commissioner Ryan Boylston wouldn’t be there. He had been helping a candidate for mayor in Pompano Beach. He would have opposed removing Lohman, just as Bill Bathurst opposed it.

After about two hours, City Manager Mark Lauzier concluded his brief report and jokingly congratulated himself on predicting that the meeting would be over by 8 p.m. Mayor Shelly Petrolia had other ideas.

Petrolia began by saying that she meant nothing “personally” toward Lohman. That’s always a bad sign. She cited differences with some of Lohman’s decisions. With no notice, she called for a vote to remove Lohman, whose firm had represented Delray Beach for almost two years to the day and had drawn praise from former and current commissioners. Lohman and his firm supervised Delray Beach’s three staff lawyers.

Commissioners Adam Frankel and Shirley Johnson agreed with Petrolia so quickly that the firing seemed to have been scripted. Of course, that would have required communication among Petrolia, Frankel and Johnson ahead of the meeting—communication that would have violated the open-meetings law. Does that happen in All-America cities?

Technically, Lohman resigned. Lohman knew what was coming, he said, because Petrolia had asked him to resign before the meeting. When I spoke with Lohman on Friday, he told me that when the outcome became clear, he read a letter of resignation. The city had no contract with Lohman, so Delray Beach doesn’t owe him anything. That’s one advantage of hiring an outside city attorney rather than make it a staff position. No severance.

The irony, though, is that Petrolia didn’t need to ambush Lohman. She could have put the item on an agenda and given no reason other than that she felt like making a change. She could have argued her case and sought majority support.

Having chosen to make a power play, however, Petrolia then tried to justify the move. She noted Lohman’s cancellation of a hearing in the suit against the city by William Himmelrich over the three-story height limit on East Atlantic Avenue. The hearing was on the city’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

But if that is Petrolia’s indictment of Lohman, it’s weak. Check the lawsuit timeline:

The city commission first had voted to settle the case by exempting Himmelrich’s two properties from the height limit. Then the commission approved on first reading the ordinance for the exemption.

“If it passed once,” Lohman said, “you assume that it’s going to pass a second time. I had expectations.” So Lohman cancelled the hearing.

Then Boylston switched his vote and rejected the settlement. Delray Beach now will fight the lawsuit. Though Lohman was ready to execute the settlement, he said the city “has a strong case.” Petrolia implied that Lohman went rogue. Lohman denies it.

Petrolia also accused Lohman of hurting the city’s lawsuit against Match Point, the owner/promoter of the annual pro tennis tournament. With that accusation, Petrolia’s possible endgame becomes clearer.

Delray Beach initially hired the Fort Lauderdale firm of Weiss Serota Helfman Cole & Bierman for the Match Point lawsuit. The city then switched firms. That happened when Cary Glickstein was mayor. Glickstein told me that the city wanted to amend its complaint and strengthen its case. Weiss Serota disagreed with that approach. So the city got a new firm.

Petrolia often has praised Weiss Serota partner Jamie Cole. He represented Delray Beach in the successful trash-hauling lawsuit. Boylston told me that Petrolia asked Lauzier to have Weiss Serota make a presentation during today’s special commission meeting on the city’s legal needs. Since Delray Beach for the moment has no city attorney—Lohman said none of the city attorneys wanted the job as an interim—the commission must pick one.

Assume that the commission picks Weiss Serota on an interim basis, Will Frankel and Johnson then stick to their talking point last week that they supported Petrolia against Lohman only because they want Delray Beach to have an in-house city attorney?

To many residents, city attorney politics might seem unimportant. But this is the sort of personal politics that can spread. Lohman called Petrolia’s explanation a “subterfuge. To say that she could justify” the firing “because of the job I did is laughable.”

Petrolia’s action appears low on substance and worse on style. You can assume that not only the legal department took notice. You might also assume that those in City Hall are wondering if Petrolia intends to stop here.

Delray’s heavy meeting schedule

Delray Beach’s elected officials will earn their salaries this week.

They have four meetings scheduled for Tuesday and another for Wednesday. In addition to the special meeting on the city attorney, there’s a community redevelopment workshop and regular meeting on Tuesday. Following those will be a city commission workshop meeting. On Wednesday, there’s a CRA workshop meeting with the Downtown Development Authority on transportation—meaning the trolley and any other service the city might want to subsidize.

But here’s the headline: At that Tuesday workshop meeting, the commission will discuss a $7.2 million plan to renovate Delray Beach’s golf course.

The course has drawn lots of attention in recent months. Regulars have asked the commission to improve the course. City administrators have noted the expense compared to public works needs elsewhere.

So the plan now is that Delray Beach can finance the $7.2 million makeover—new greens and other features, better irrigation and amenities—through revenue from higher prices and increased rounds. If the course is better, the thinking goes, more people will play, and they will be willing to pay more.

The projected membership increases aren’t outlandish. A resident family membership would rise from $1,900 annually to $2,200. A single resident membership would go from $1,250 to $1,500. The same organization that advised Boca Raton on renovation of the former Ocean Breeze course consulted with Delray Beach.

According to the presentation commissioners will hear today, if they approve the plan, work could start in the spring of 2020.

Local recount for house seat

Though most attention is on the statewide recounts involving the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections, the race for the Florida House seat that includes Boca Raton and Delray Beach also is headed for a recount.

With a machine recount due to be complete Thursday, Republican Michael Caruso leads Democrat James Bonfiglio by just 36 votes. Caruso led by 124 on Election Night. It was just last August that a Boca Raton City Council race went to a hand recount. That happens if the candidates are separated by 0.25 percentage points or less after the machine recount. Andy Thomson trailed Kathy Cottrell in the first count, but he wound up winning.

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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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