Scorched Earth Canal Clean-up? Plus CRA Decision Coming on West Atlantic

Canal clearance by the Lake Worth Drainage District off Southwest 12th Avenue. (Randy Schultz)

For the moment, the Lake Worth Drainage District is Public Enemy No. 1 in parts of Boca Raton.

This morning, the district will hold an open house for residents along the L-48 Canal between Southwest 12th Avenue and Southwest Ninth Avenue. The district will discuss its “rehabilitation project” for the L-48. What the district calls “rehabilitation,” however, the residents consider potential destruction of their neighborhood.

Then on Wednesday, at its regular meeting, the district board again will discuss “rehabilitation” of the nearby L-49 Canal. I wrote last month that residents who live on the north side of Sabal Palm Lake—where the L-49 enters—believe that the district wants to needlessly strip their backyards in the name of flood control.

This issue has built for months, ever since the drainage district and the South Florida Water Management District announced plans to basically clear cut the banks along their canals. The water management district owns and maintains the main canals that provide flood control. The drainage district owns and maintains the secondary canals.

In some cases, the work has meant lost docks and other structures, as well as trees. As both agencies note, they own the land in question. As residents respond, however, the work seems arbitrary and spasmodic. They have complained to the city council that the character of their neighborhoods is at stake.

The drainage district outlined its plans last November in a presentation to the Boca Raton City Council. Not until late spring and early summer, however, did notices of the work start going out. That’s when residents perked up. Those in southwest Boca, where the next phase is scheduled to begin, have expressed alarm at the stripping along canals south of Palmetto Park Road.

I spoke Monday with Tommy Strowd, the drainage district’s director of operations and maintenance who worked previously at the water management district. When he started four years ago, Strowd said, the board asked him to address “many years of back maintenance.”

Strowd devoted his first year to pumps and other structures. An assessment of the agency’s canals in the second year determined that between 150 and 180 miles of canals were “dangerous,” meaning they posed a threat to flood control after massive rains.

The district, Strowd said, prioritized the longer, north-south canals. Now comes work on the lateral canals that have drawn all the criticism in Boca Raton. Before the southwest neighborhoods got angry, the pushback came from residents near Florida Atlantic University.

Strowd acknowledged the district’s lack of presence in recent years, but he defended the plan.

“You have to think about the people in the basin, not just along the canal. They would flood if the canal gets blocked.”

Residents who live on lakes near the L-48 and L-49, though, argue that the district doesn’t need to clear as wide a swath on their property as on homesites along canals. Strowd said the lakes provide the district access from one stretch of the canal to another.

The city council passed a resolution that would trigger a conflict resolution if residents and the district can’t agree on a compromise for the L-49 work. The first offer was to clear 20 feet from the water line and no farther.

For now, that project is on hold. Linda Slate, who lives on Lake Sabal Palm, told me that the district was to have met with her and her neighbors. “But none of us have been contacted.”

The district offered to clear just 20 feet behind lakefront homes. Slate said the district also offered to grant homeowners a variance for $500, but couldn’t answer whether that variance would be in perpetuity.

Strowd said the district is willing to talk. In a letter to Mayor Scott Singer before the agency’s June meeting, however, Strowd said the city’s resolution was “proposed for the sake of a few residents to slow down or modify a project that clearly benefits hundreds of residents along the L-49 Canal. He also stated that the district’s mission mattered more than seeking to accommodate “a few property owners.”

Those property owners, though, believe that they are fighting for their neighborhoods. And there’s a special election on Aug. 28.

Delray CRA on next steps for West Atlantic

On Thursday, acting as the community redevelopment agency, the Delray Beach City Commission will decide on the next step for three acres of CRA-owned land. But based on Monday’s CRA workshop, the decision seems clear.

At this point, the commission/CRA seems poised to vote 5-2 to give Equity Delray a second chance. The CRA—then an independent board—chose Equity five years ago to develop the property east of the Fairfield Inn. After three years, and at the 11th hour, Equity couldn’t demonstrate financing to the CRA’s satisfaction.

Yet Mayor Shelly Petrolia and commissioners Adam Frankel and Shirley Johnson expressed support Monday for Equity. So did Angeleta Gray and Pamela Brinson, the two appointed CRA members. They argue that because Equity’s approvals remain in effect, the company just needs new permits. West Atlantic residents waiting decades for redevelopment thus could get a project faster.

Commissioners Bill Bathurst and Ryan Boylston respond that the city could get a better project and more money. Equity would pay just $1.2 million for roughly three acres appraised at $15.5 million. “I don’t like leaving money on the table,” Bathurst said.

I will have more on this in my Thursday post.

Haynie update

Susan Haynie

A status hearing is scheduled for July 26 in the corruption case against former Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie. She has not appeared in court since her arrest in April. Her lawyer entered a plea of not guilty.

Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Glenn Kelly could set a trial date at that hearing. Prosecutors have not filed their response to Haynie’s motion for dismissal of the seven charges, four felonies and three misdemeanors. The state attorney’s office, however, has added to its discovery request documents from seven Haynie-related complaints with the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics.

Two are part of the case Haynie settled just before she was charged. They relate to the contract that the property management company owned by Haynie and her husband with a master condo association in Deerfield Beach. James and Marta Batmasian, the largest property owners in downtown Boca Raton, own most of the units in the condo. That contract is at the heart of the investigation that led to the charges against Haynie.

Three other complaints involve tickets Haynie accepted as mayor. One complaint was dismissed, with Haynie getting a letter of instruction. Two other complaints were dismissed outright. It is not clear why prosecutors want to reexamine those complaints.

Lauzier presents early budget options

Delray Beach city commissioners regularly have complained that they don’t get enough time to review the budget. With formal budget hearings still almost two months away, City Manager Mark Lauzier already is giving his bosses some numbers.

At tonight’s meeting, Lauzier will present two options. The commission could approve a tax rate of roughly 6.86 mills, meaning $6.86 per $1,000 of assessed value. That’s the current rate for the operating budget. Or the commission could approve a rate of $6.76, as part of the commission’s stated wish to cut the rate by one mill over 10 years, at 0.1 mills each year. (He also recommends that the commission maintain the current Downtown Development Authority rate of $1.)

Lauzier notes that the budget balances at the lower rate. The higher rate, he writes in a memo, would give the commission “more flexibility going into the budget review and approval process.” During that review, non-profit groups and residents invariably ask for more money.

Mayor Shelly Petrolia has supported tax cuts. Delray Beach, however, has many needs. Lauzier is allowing the commission lots of time for that debate.

Match Point

Before tonight’s regular meeting, the Delray Beach City Commission will meet in executive session to discuss the Match Point lawsuit. It will be the first meeting on the subject with the new commission and the new law firm handling the litigation. The commission dismissed the prior firm when it refused to amend the complaint, as the commission and City Attorney Max Lohman had asked.

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