Remembering the Countess, Chabad, and more on the Wildflower site

henrietta.jpg

Sympathies

Talk about karma.

In 1992, the Boca Raton News ran a story alleging that one of Boca Raton’s most generous philanthropists—Henrietta de Hoernle, known throughout the community as Countess de Hoernle—basically had bought her title. Reaction was caustic at best and vile at worst.

On Sunday, Henrietta de Hoernle died in Boca. She was 103 and had donated an estimated $40 million to organizations in the city.

Also on Sunday, Wayne Ezell was killed in Iowa when a truck hit his bicycle as he prepared for a race. Ezell was the editor of the News when it ran the story about the countess. Ezell defended the paper’s reporting.

The News predeceased the countess by seven years. Whatever the emotions of 24 years ago, the community’s sympathies go out to both families.

New try against Wildflower

Opponents of a restaurant on the Wildflower property tried a new gambit last week before the Boca Raton Planning and Zoning Board.

The board was reviewing the proposed ordinance, which would restrict use of city-owned land along the Intracoastal Waterway to public purposes. The unstated goal is to block a lease of the site to Hillstone Restaurant Group. The city council can introduce the proposal at tonight’s meeting, hold a public hearing in August and schedule it for a vote on Nov. 8.

Or, said the attorney who wrote the ordinance and the head of the group that gathered petition signatures, the council could “simplify” things by adopting the ordinance itself and not bothering with a public vote. If council members are worried about unintended consequences, attorney Ralf Brookes said, adopting the ordinance would allow the council to amend it.

Doing so, however, would mean abandoning what has been a council priority—generating revenue from the property. It would mean letting a few residents who oppose the restaurant because it would be near them turn a misleading petition into a city ordinance. It would mean depriving all city residents of many millions in revenue.

Though Brookes told board members that voters would approve the ordinance by a wide margin, the new approach—just skip the election—makes you wonder just how confident he and those who oppose the restaurant really are that they would win.

A presidential election will mean a big turnout; four years ago, turnout in Palm Beach County was nearly 70 percent. Higher turnout will mean more voters from other parts of the city, not just neighborhoods near the Wildflower property. A private campaign to defeat the referendum—there almost certainly would be one—would focus on what how much the ordinance could cost the city over the first 20 years of the lease and another 25 years under an extension.

Any campaign first would point out the deception in the ordinance. Petition chairman James Hendrey told the planning and zoning board that “all the parks” in Boca should be for public use, but the Wildflower property is not a park. The council never envisioned it as a park. So the idea that the city is trying to “commercialize” a park is false, though the deception probably got some people to sign the petition.

Hendrey’s wife, Nancy, told the board that it’s “a very simple ordinance.” That’s also false. A simple ordinance would read: “Should the city of Boca Raton lease the Wildflower property for use as a restaurant?” The ordinance mentions neither the site nor a restaurant. It proposes restricting city-owned land along the Intracoastal Waterway to a list of public uses.

That vague language worried some planning and zoning board members. The ordinance doesn’t mention lift stations, which move wastewater through the system. What about utility easements? Though the target is the Wildflower site, the ordinance also would apply to Red Reef, Spanish River, Rutherford and Silver Palm parks.

Like other opponents of the restaurant lease, Brookes touted the property’s potential as a park. He compared the site to Veterans Park in Delray Beach, which also is on the Intracoastal. Veterans Park, however, is roughly 50 percent larger than the 2.2-acre Wildflower property and has been a community hub for decades.

The park possibilities are very limited, and wouldn’t justify the $7.5 million price for the land. As for linking it with Silver Palm Park, that could bring to the north side of the Palmetto Park Bridge the homeless whom neighbors of Silver Palm complain burn garbage in the park’s grills. Also, the restaurant would include a public walkway on the waterfront and parking spaces for non-diners.

With one member absent, the board deadlocked 3-3 on whether to recommend the ordinance to the council. Those who voted against cited potential liability issues. The vote itself, though, has little practical effect. Council members can’t ignore the petition. It should go to a vote, and the logical time is November—after a campaign that explains to voters what the real issue is.

And, as an aside…

At the Planning and Zoning Board meeting, one speaker claimed that former Boca Raton Mayor Susan Whelchel “sold (the Wildflower property) to the community as a park 10 years ago.”

Actually, the council – with Whelchel as mayor – bought the land in 2009, and Whelchel has said many times that the intent was to lease the site for a restaurant. Minutes of the meeting support Whelchel’s version.

As he finished, the speaker said, sarcastically, “I guess I’m imagining things.” Yes, he is.

And so we don’t leave out any Wildflower issues, two zoning changes that would allow commercial use of the entire property are before the council tonight.

New tax rate for Boca

Boca Raton property owners will pay more next year for city services.

At tonight’s meeting, the city council will set Boca Raton’s 2016-17 tax rate. The proposed levy—for operating expenses and debt service—is $3.68 per $100,000 of assessed value. That’s roughly the same as this year, but most property owners will pay more because values have increased citywide by 6.5 percent. For bills to stay the same, the rate would have to be $3.24.

City Manager Leif Ahnell also proposes an increase in the fire fee. Homeowners would pay $105, an increase of $20. Commercial owners also would pay more, based on the size of their properties. The city first assessed the fire fee 10 years ago.

Annexation

Another item on Tuesday’s agenda is annexation of five communities that adjoin Boca Raton’s northwest border.

Annexation of Le Lac, Azura, Newport Bay, Boniello and Fieldbrook would add about 700 residents. According to the staff report, the annexations would bring the city roughly $762,000 in net revenue the first year. That’s the difference between new property tax collections and the cost of providing services. The residents would benefit because their overall tax rate would be lower than what the county levies.

The council must schedule two votes in November – one by residents of Le Lac and one by residents of the other four communities. Two votes are necessary because Le Lac does not adjoin the others.

There shouldn’t be anything controversial during tonight’s discussion, but at least one speaker—an eastern resident—previously griped about adding residents of “gated communities.” Boca Raton, however, already has gated communities. More likely, behind any criticism is a worry among critics of downtown development that northwestern residents wouldn’t think that the council is being irresponsible on downtown development.

Chabad news

A federal judge ruled last week that Boca Raton did not violate the First Amendment ban on government establishment of religion when the city council approved Chabad East Boca.

Two Christian residents had argued that the council did a favor for the Jewish congregation, which seeks to build a temple, community center and exhibit hall on East Palmetto Park Road near the beach. The plaintiffs built their case on a conspiracy theory:

In 2007, Chabad East Boca wanted to build on properties assembled in the Golden Triangle just east of Mizner Park. Homeowners objected. To “appease” those residents and to avoid hurting the image of Mizner Park, the plaintiffs argued, the city worked with the chabad to allow a house of worship on the Palmetto Park Road site, where the city should not have allowed one.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra, however, didn’t even get to the conspiracy theory. He found that the plaintiffs didn’t have standing to bring the case.

To make their case, the plaintiffs needed to show that the approval had injured them. Marra said they could not “identify what benefit they have been excluded from. Indeed, they do not allege that they have sought and been denied any benefit.”

Marra added, “The closest the plaintiffs come to asserting an injury is when they allege that the building is “injurious to residents in the area” meaning them. The plaintiffs don’t specify how the chabad would injure them. “Furthermore, it appears that the building has not been built yet. It is unclear how a nonexistent building can be ‘injurious.’ In any event, plaintiffs also fail to allege how the eventual construction of the building will create an injury in fact.”

Merely being Boca Raton taxpayers, Marra wrote, is not sufficient grounds to bring the case.       Those plaintiffs have 10 days in which to refile their case, if they choose to do so.

Earlier, the city also prevailed in a lawsuit alleging that the council wrongly allowed the chabad 10 feet of extra height. In the third lawsuit, opponents persuaded a panel of three circuit court judges that Boca Raton’s code does not allow a museum on the site. The land trust that owns the site has appealed that ruling.

Online aps?

I wrote last week that on Aug. 1 Boca Raton would begin accepting development applications on line. I asked Delray Beach Planning and Zoning Director Tim Stillings if the city has a similar system. His email response:

“Not yet. We’re working on developing a web-based system for development application submittal. Hoping to have it released by the end of the year.”

Previous articleThe Week Ahead: July 26 to Aug. 1
Next articleThe Sunglass Lowdown
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.