Playing politics with development and more.

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Playing politics with the Ag Reserve

No one mentioned Palm Beach County’s Agricultural Reserve Area on Tuesday when the county commission chose new leaders, but what happened on Tuesday hints at what could happen with the county’s coastal farmland.

The event should have been routine: the annual choice of a county mayor. Until two years ago, the holder was called the chairman, whose most important duty is running commission meetings. Steven Abrams, who represents south county, urged the name change when he got the post. Outsiders, he said—especially businesses seeking to move here—would better understand whom in county government they could approach to set up a meeting, even if most of the duties remained ceremonial.

Whatever the title, the choice almost every year has been based on a rotation system that in turn is based in part on seniority. Normally, the vice mayor becomes mayor in the next rotation. Priscilla Taylor had been vice mayor before she succeeded Abrams in 2013. For the last year, Paulette Burdick had been vice mayor.

On Tuesday, however, the commission passed over Burdick and chose Shelley Vana by a vote of 5-2, with Burdick and Abrams dissenting. Taylor was the instigator, telling reporters that she thought Vana would “do a better job.” There’s much more to it.

When commissioners pass over a colleague this way, it’s punishment. It happened once before in recent years; Jess Santamaria didn’t get the gavel when it was his turn. One reason was that after succeeding Tony Masilotti, one of three ex-commissioners who went to prison, Santamaria continually held himself up as a paragon of political virtue and lectured other commissioners. A more legitimate reason was that Santamaria’s self-absorption could have led to dragged-out, loosely-run meetings.

Passing over Burdick, though, was more about policy. Last month, Burdick was one of just two votes—with Santamaria—against the massive Minto West mini-city in The Acreage, northwest of West Palm Beach. Burdick also has said she favors no changes that would allow more development in the Agricultural Reserve Area west of Delray Beach and Boynton Beach.

Fifteen years ago, voters taxed themselves $100 million to keep as much agriculture as possible in the reserve. Rules limit the number of homes and commercial/retail development in the roughly 20,000 acres. Now, though, some farmers want more development rights, so they can sell their land. Early next year, the commission will consider those proposed changes.

GL Homes is the company most eager to build in the Agricultural Reserve Area. Former commissioner Burt Aaronson, whose district included the reserve, was the company’s strongest supporter on the commission. Aaronson has been helping the farmers, and now that he has been off the commission for two years—he was term-limited in 2012—Aaronson can register as a lobbyist.

Aaronson and Taylor had become commission allies when he left office. Mary Lou Berger, Aaronson’s former aide, succeeded him. Berger called for the review of development rules in the reserve. She’s also the new vice mayor. Vana voted for Minto West and for development on the former Mizner Trail Golf Course in Boca Del Mar.

So instead of having a county mayor who has declared her opposition to changes in the Agricultural Reserve, we have a mayor with a recent record of supporting development projects that neighbors overwhelmingly oppose. We have a vice mayor who asked that the county consider changes to development rules in the Agricultural Reserve. We have two other commissioners—Taylor and Hal Valeche—who voted for Minto West and Mizner Trail and voted not to make Burdick mayor.

If anyone wanted to look hard, he or she probably could find multiple Sunshine Law violations leading up to Tuesday’s performance. One should not assume that these developments mean that the commission will go against what the public wanted for the Agriculture Reserve. One also should not assume that these developments are a series of coincidences.

New Mizner on The Green

While there remains much talk about the proposed New Mizner on the Green project in Boca Raton, there is no action.

In September, when I first wrote about the four-tower condo project—the buildings would average roughly 300 feet in height—a representative of Elad Properties told me that the city might discuss it that month in a workshop. Didn’t happen.

Last month, the project’s designer, Daniel Libeskind, made an appearance on behalf of the Boca Raton Museum or Art. There was more talk of an impending council presentation. Never happened.

And nothing is scheduled. Here’s why:

As Mayor Susan Haynie explained to me in a text message, city staff won’t accept plans for New Mizner on the Green because the towers “exceed the allowed height in the downtown.” The limit for that site, north of Townsend Place on Mizner Boulevard, is 100 feet.

Haynie said a member of the council “must be willing to sponsor a code amendment, and to date no one has.” Until then, New Mizner on the Green will remain dazzling, controversial—and in limbo.

Contract pending

Two weeks ago, the Delray Beach City Commission chose Don Cooper to be the permanent city manager, but that won’t become official until Cooper agrees to a contract.

Mayor Cary Glickstein told me that he anticipates no problems. Cooper’s last salary as a city manager was $161,000, and the advertised salary range for the Delray job was roughly $165,000.

One good sign is that it’s already been two weeks. In 1990, it took just a week for the commission’s choice to back out because of disagreements over salary and severance. City Attorney Noel Pfeffer told me Wednesday that he and Cooper are “exchanging drafts” of a contract. Pfeffer hopes to have a deal by the end of the week.

Update on development regs

The Delray Beach City Commission voted unanimously Tuesday night to move ahead with consideration of new Central Business District development regulations, but there will be a lot to work out before the scheduled second hearing on Dec. 9.

At Tuesday night’s first hearing, Mayor Cary Glickstein had suggestions, notably a plan to encourage more office development. Commissioner Jordana Jarjura had questions about the bonus program in general, saying that, while it was only three pages of a roughly 60-page proposal, it dominated the discussion. Commissioner Shelly Petrolia had questions about the parking requirements.

Based on the commissioners’ comments, staff members will make changes to the proposals. They are supposed to get a second, final vote on Dec. 9. Since the title of the ordinance covering the regulations won’t change, there doesn’t seem to be a legal problem if the commission votes on something different from what was before them on Tuesday.

The hang-up could be getting a version that three commissioners can approve. Jarjura said in email, “My concerns aside, this is an excellent first step in the right direction, and I believe we will pass something reasonable.” Petrolia worries about rushing the new rules. To Glickstein, the office component remains essential. In an email, he said, “The old master plan got us the ‘live’ and ‘play’ pieces of our downtown mosaic, but we have not achieved the all-important ‘work’ part of the puzzle.”

Expect a long discussion on Dec. 9.

Getting it right

Sometimes, the criminal justice system gets it just right. That happened this week in the case of a Lake Worth man who last February left a loaded gun within reach of his 3-year-old daughter.

Zuri Chambers killed herself with that gun, which her father did not believe she was strong enough to fire. In Florida, it is a felony to leave a loaded gun within reach of a child if the gun is used to injure or kill a child. Thomas Chambers had left the gun out while he showered.

Thomas Chambers had no criminal record. On Tuesday, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge John Kastrenakes approved a deal that will keep Chambers out of prison but will place him on probation for 10 years and require him to give public talks on guns safety. He will not have a felony conviction if he completes his probation.

The Legislature approved that law 25 years ago, after a string of accidental shootings killed several children. One could argue that the felony conviction should stick, but Florida makes it too hard for ex-felons to regain their rights. One cannot argue that society would be better off with Chambers doing all or part of the maximum 30-year sentence he could have received.

But as the Legislature writes blank check after blank check to the National Rifle Association on “gun rights,” the Chambers case should be a lesson. He had a concealed weapons permit, and before February would have been considered a model firearms owner. Yet he made a fatal mistake. What about all those other gun owners who are less responsible?

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You can email Randy Schultz at randy@bocamag.com

For more City Watch blogs, click here.About the Author

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.

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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.