Sunday, April 14, 2024

Three Offers for Boca’s Western Golf Course, the Mystery of Uptown Atlantic and more

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Call it the 19th hole of the Boca Raton City Council’s Nov. 21 discussion about selling the western golf course and possibly acquiring the Ocean Breeze course.

Council members had concluded their business. They had decided to consider two offers for the city course. They would add a third the next day. All that remained on the workshop meeting agenda that Monday was remarks from council members. It was nearly 6 p.m., and they had spent hours talking golf. You expected a few pleasantries and then adjournment.

Instead, Councilman Robert Weinroth brought up the performance of City Attorney Diana Grub Frieser. Weinroth noted that the city had suffered what he termed “two defeats.” Voters had approved the deceptively written ordinance to keep a restaurant off the Wildflower site, and an appeals court had upheld an earlier ruling against the city’s approval of Chabad East Boca. Could Frieser have kept the ordinance off the ballot? Was the advice to the council on Chabad East Boca faulty?

Weinroth stressed that he wasn’t seeking to fire Frieser. But should the council conduct a formal evaluation of Frieser? “If I’m the only one who wants to discuss it, that’s fine.”

At this point, he is. Of Frieser’s decisions, Mike Mullaugh said, “I’m not coming up with how I’d play it differently.” On the chabad, Mullaugh said, “The opposition kept changing their tone.” Three lawsuits challenged the approval. For now, the city has prevailed on two. One continues in federal court. Chabad East Boca intends to reapply, with a different site plan.

Of Frieser, Jeremy Rodgers said, “I’m in no rush to make changes.” Scott Singer, the only council member to support the waterfront ordinance, said, “I’m not prepared to make a change,” adding that he would not characterize the two outcomes as “defeats.” Mayor Susan Haynie also showed no interest in discussing Frieser’s performance.

When I spoke with Weinroth the next day, he complained that his colleagues “ran away from me on (Frieser.)” I asked if he thought the city attorney could have kept the ordinance off the ballot because of the misleading wording, which included no mention of the Wildflower or a restaurant and applied to other city land.

“My gut says yes,” Weinroth said, arguing that the 2014 appeals court ruling in the Archstone – now Palmetto Promenade – case states that land-use issues can’t go to a public referendum. “We made no attempt” to contest the ordinance, Weinroth said. “(Frieser) knew that it was deceptive. We should have taken a shot at it. Maybe she was waiting for us.”

And Weinroth, despite his opposition, never asked whether Frieser could act beyond ensuring that the petition language for the ordinance conformed to city standards. Nor did any other council member. The presumption seemed to be that the council had no choice but to place the ordinance on the ballot. The Florida Supreme Court can reject constitutional amendments if the justices find that the language is misleading.

Whatever happens with the ordinance and how the council decides to implement it, Weinroth seems determined to keep pressing on the issue of the council evaluating the two employees it hires – the city manager and the city attorney. “I think it’s time to start talking about a general process.”

Weinroth is a convert on the issue. Last summer, I wrote that the council regularly had not held a formal evaluation of City Manager Leif Ahnell, even though his contract states that the council is to evaluate him each year. Weinroth defended the practice of council members informally evaluating Ahnell during their one-on-one discussions with him. “I’ve been converted,” he says now. He plans to raise the topic at next spring’s goal-setting session, when a new council is in place.

Ahnell and Frieser have held their jobs since 1999. I have heard private criticism of them since starting this blog nearly three years ago. Ahnell: He’s a brilliant numbers guy who doesn’t understand planning and development. Frieser: She oversteps and needlessly slows down approval of even minor applications and requests. But council members have made no public criticism.

At least for now, Weinroth is an exception. “I’m not talking about firing anyone,” he said, “but I have heard frustration from the development community” about how long the approval process can take. “Of course, you have other people saying it’s too fast.”

Weinroth strongly supported annexation of seven northwest neighborhoods. It also was an overall council goal. That effort stopped when it became clear that the city had not communicated adequately with some neighborhoods. Weinroth believes that the staff “mishandled” annexation. There’s also the question of whether quicker negotiations with Hillstone Restaurant Group might have headed off the waterfront ordinance.

This year, the Delray Beach City Commission held a public evaluation of City Manager Don Cooper. Each commissioner did a written evaluation. “It doesn’t have to be adversarial,” Weinroth said. “I don’t want to micromanage.” But the public never sees those one-on-one meetings. And those in powerful positions can get entrenched and entitled. Formal evaluations might be good for Ahnell and Frieser. If they lead to better performance, they certainly would be good for Boca Raton.

 



Another lawsuit on the horizon?

As noted, the Boca Raton City Council added a third proposal for the western golf course – from Compson Associates – for consideration. Here is the potential problem with that action.

The council added Compson only after several speakers praised the company for including in the project roughly 25 acres that would be home to a new campus for Torah Academy. The academy is a religious-oriented institution. Its website speaks of the academy’s “outstanding Judaic Studies curriculum.”

This would not be an issue if Compson owned the land that now makes up the course and simply had made a development application. But Compson is competing for the land, and the council’s obligation is to choose the best offer for the overall city.

As the golf course debate continues, Boca Raton faces a federal lawsuit over approval of Chabad East Boca. The lawsuit alleges that the city illegally aided a religion – the chabad is an Orthodox branch of Judaism – at the expense of non-Jewish residents who live near where the chabad wants to build.

I don’t think that lawsuit has any merit. But I believe that Compson’s competitors – GL Homes and Lennar – might have grounds to sue if the city chooses Compson. It’s not just that the company’s new bid came late. It’s the religious element now in play. The potential problem would exist whatever faith or denomination were involved. Favoring Compson because the project includes a religious element strikes me as risky.

 



More hypocrisy from BocaWatch

Regarding the council’s decision to add Compson, BocaWatch’s hypocrisy is showing again.

In a blog post, Publisher Al Zucaro ripped Mayor Haynie for poor leadership in allowing the late bid. He referred to a “feckless group of elected officials that refuse to follow their own rules.”

In fact, though there was worry about creating “an auction,” the council anticipated that there might be late bids when it set up the schedule and format for accepting offers. One can disagree about the wisdom, but the council made clear that considering offers for the golf course would be different than considering bids for a city contract. Attorneys for GL Homes and Lennar still might challenge the decision to include Compson.

More to the point, Zucaro directed no individual criticism at Scott Singer, BocaWatch’s favorite council member. Yet Singer was part of the council consensus to add Compson. Zucaro did single out Weinroth, a frequent BocaWatch target. He also contradicted himself by claiming a) that Haynie allowed Compson for selfish political reasons – the mayor’s seat is up in March — and b) that those who spoke in favor of Compson were non-residents. If they can’t vote in Boca Raton, why would Haynie worry about the politics?

Zucaro recently has given favorable coverage to former Councilman Peter Baronoff. There is much talk of him challenging Haynie in March. If he does, BocaWatch surely will support him. That explains Zucaro’s selective criticism of Haynie.

 



More on FAU’s student-oriented district

After Friday, we should know much more about what a student-oriented district east of Florida Atlantic University might look like.

Starting at 9 a.m. in FAU Stadium’s recruiting room, the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council will host the 20th Street Corridor Summit. Twentieth Street is the east entrance to FAU, and student apartment complexes already are in the area. Finalizing a plan is a city council goal.

Discussion topics include: land-use patterns; FAU’s campus plans; transportation; city services – that mostly means the police department; overall planning; communication between FAU and the city; and the ever-popular “vision and process.”

Kim Delaney is the planning council staff member who oversaw the interviews with FAU and city officials, residents and property owners that collectively will form the departure points for the summit. She told me that the interviews revealed general agreement on “the need for more university-related services.” The summit will begin a “dive into the details.” The planning council intends to deliver a report to the city next month.

 



Delray Christmas tree lighting tonight

Delray Beach commissioners heard many complaints about downtown street closings for festival and other special events. That’s why they approved a policy designed to cut the number of events and thus the number of closings.

There will be no complaints tonight, however, when the city closes three blocks of East Atlantic Avenue for the annual Christmas tree lighting at 7 p.m. This is a beloved city event, not a festival with a private company in charge.

 



What gives, Uptown Atlantic?

The Uptown Atlantic story just keeps getting more peculiar.

On Tuesday, I reported that the Delray Beach Community Redevelopment Agency had declared Equity Delray in default of the agreement to buy roughly six acres from the CRA for the Uptown Atlantic project. Closing had been scheduled for Wednesday. News of the default went from the CRA’s attorney to Equity’s attorney.

As of 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, the closing had not happened. CRA Director Jeff Costello told me, “We’re still prepared to close today.” Yet when I had spoken to developer John Flynn about 30 minutes earlier, Flynn said there would be no closing on Wednesday. He said he would be meeting with the CRA at 10 this morning.

Costello, however, knew of no such meeting. “We haven’t heard anything from them or their attorney.” A few minutes later, Costello called back to say that, yes, the closing would not happen but the meeting would.

I will have more next week.

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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