A Growing Delray Beach

 

Boca Raton and Delray Beach are about to make high-reward but also high-risk decisions on development regulations. Both cities should be glad that they attract enough development to justify the reviews and also cautious enough in approving new regulations not to sacrifice the attributes that draw developers.

In Delray Beach, a draft proposal for changes to land development regulations in the Central Business District went before the Planning and Zoning Board last night at a workshop session – questions and discussion only; no votes. Previously, the city commission had offered comments on the proposal during its own lengthy workshop. As in Boca, a final vote on the changes probably will happen in the fall.

Delray Beach asked the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council for guidance. Council staff member Anthea Gianniotes calls the proposal – 59 pages in its current form -- not a drastic “revision” but “a matter of fine-tuning.” It comes as Delray prepares for a new round of development, notably in the area south and west of Atlantic Avenue and Swinton Avenue.

The last wave of development, Gianniotes said, produced some “dissatisfaction” among residents in addition to the new revenue it brought. Among other things, sidewalks got narrower, and Gianniotes correctly points out that Delray Beach has a “very active bicyclist/pedestrian community” and a “sophisticated citizenry.” Indeed, downtown Delray is so crowded most nights that the best way to get there and then get around is by pedal or foot, especially for younger, newer residents who live close to downtown. Ruin that experience, and you punish the people Delray Beach has spent so many years trying to attract.

One issue is Delray Beach’s four-story height limit. Or, more accurately, Delray Beach’s perceived four-story height limit. The height limit is 48 feet, which Gianniotes says developers can circumvent through new building techniques to create five-story buildings that don’t violate the rules. So one proposed change would define the height requirement by number of stories.

Another proposal would increase open space and setback requirements for large projects – to prevent approval or projects that could overwhelm an area. Not surprisingly, the push for rule changes began after a previous city commission approved Atlantic Crossing, on the north side of Atlantic Avenue west of Veterans Park. The mixed-use project is equivalent of a “McMansion” on an undersized residential lot.

Delray Beach’s goal, as Gianniotes puts it in planning talk, is to establish “predictability of scale” with these changes. There are no “guiding instructions” for downtown projects, she said. The changes seek to create those instructions.

Of course, the city commission didn’t have to approve the huge waivers for Atlantic Crossing. On the current commission, Shelly Petrolia is probably the most vocal opponent of granting exemptions to planning requirements. While she supports the review – some of the regulations, she says, are “outdated” -- Petrolia also says, “We don’t need to be as flexible as we have been. People should build according to [the regulations]. It seems as if everything comes before the commission for something.”

She has a point. A city can adopt whatever development regulations it wants, but those regulations always will depend on what elected officials decide. Developers always will ask; in some cases the exceptions they seek will work for the community as well as the developer. Other times, though, they won’t. So who has more influence over elected officials? I have wondered for years why turnout in city elections is so much lower then for presidential elections. Higher turnout would mean greater accountability for those who make decisions close to home.

Beachside Comfort 

Last week, the Boca Raton City Council approved a contract to provide cabanas and other rental amenities on the beaches at South Beach Park, Red Reef Park and Spanish River Park. The contractor, Oceanside Beach Services, has quite a history in Delray Beach.

In 2012, then-City Manager David Harden – without city commission approval -- extended for three years that city’s contract with Oceanside, which the company first obtained in 2002. Curiously, the extension didn’t bring Delray Beach any more money, even though the city’s public beach is very popular.

In April 2013, a new city commission asked then-City Manager Louie Chapman to seek bids for the beach contract. The city did, and the new deal brought Delray Beach roughly $153,000 more from December 2013 to June 2015, the balance of the contract.

Under Chapman, though, Delray Beach so botched the bidding that the process led to a pair of reports by the county’s Office of Inspector General. Example: the bid proposal specified that a company could have only 250 pieces of equipment, rather than 250 groupings of pieces – say, an umbrella, two chairs and two cushions. The sloppy language might have scared off companies that thought they couldn’t make any more with those restrictions.

In Boca, however, Oceanside was the only bidder. In contrast to Delray, this contract is just for one year, with the possibility of three, one-year renewals. The city will get $54,000 the first year and will share the money with the Greater Boca Raton Beach & Park District. You’d think that, given all the beachgoers in this area, there would be more bidders seeking to supply them.

All Bets Aside

For those who claim that casinos represent Florida’s economic future, consider that the number of recent casino closures in Atlantic City, N.J., has risen to four.

Those of a certain age will recall that casinos were supposed to save Atlantic City when they begin operating in the late 1970s. Atlantic City and its boardwalk had been big draws decades earlier, but the old resort town faded as tastes changed and theme parks opened in Florida.

Casinos, though, never led to the wider redevelopment of Atlantic City that New Jersey politicians had predicted. Also, three-plus decades ago, only New Jersey and Nevada allowed casino gambling. Today, casinos are in Connecticut, New York, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, all states that once supplied gamblers to Atlantic City. Many of the casinos have opened on Native American tribal land. Whoever operates them, those new casinos have cut into Atlantic City’s market.

The Florida Legislature has not decided whether to allow Las Vegas-style casinos in places other than tribal land. First, legislators want to see what happens with negotiations on the Seminole Tribe’s deal under which the tribe gives the state money in exchange for a monopoly on certain games at the Hard Rock Casino.

But there are only so many gambling dollars to go around. We should be skeptical of any claim that casinos would create lots of jobs and new revenue for the state. Though Bible Belt, socially conservative states border Florida, two casino boats operate in Georgia, and Biloxi, Miss., has become such a gambling spot that the casinos supply roughly one-fourth of the state’s tax revenue.

Those states, though, can’t offer South Florida’s range of first-rate attractions or the area’s excellent hotels. Bruce Springsteen sung of Atlantic City, “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact. But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.” Let the casino myth stay dead.

Big Budget Debate 

In the debate over the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office budget, one points gets overlooked.

Yes, the cost of running the sheriff’s office makes up roughly half of the county’s budget, and a major cause of Sheriff Ric Bradshaw’s proposed budget increase of $32 million is an overly generous labor contract.

But even residents of Boca Raton, Delray Beach and Boynton Beach, which have their own police departments, should know that the sheriff’s office does some of their work. The sheriff’s office runs the county jail, which means that cities don’t need their own jails. The sheriff’s office runs the county crime lab.

And the sheriff’s office routinely gets calls from cities with help on crime problems or cases. Bradshaw told me that during the first seven months of the year the office got roughly 6,800 calls from city police departments. The sheriff’s office may provide direct law enforcement just for the unincorporated county and those cities that contract with it, but the office is a resource for every law enforcement agency in the county.

Bipartisanship Strikes Again

It may lead only to more frustration, but Delray Beach tonight will try to get some leverage over unregulated “sober houses” that have proliferated throughout the city.

Before the city commission is a resolution – offered by Delray’s special counsel on this issue – urging the National League of Cities and the Florida League of Cities to lobby federal and state lawmakers for relief. Cities are very limited in their responses because those recovering from substance abuse are included in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

The resolution says the departments of Housing and Urban Development and Justice have interpreted the law “inconsistently,” thus “causing a great financial and social burden on state and local governments facing over-concentration of sober homes. . .” Lack of regulation has “resulted in poorly run houses that provide little or no supervision or support for individuals recovering from addiction. . .” With Congress accomplishing less and less, Delray shouldn’t be optimistic. Still, this is another of those bipartisan issues that a functioning Congress would be able to deal with effectively and promptly.

Save the Everyglades

Last week, the South Florida Water Management District issued its annual misleading report on the health of the Everglades.

In 1994, the Florida Legislature passed the Everglades Forever Act, which required sugar growers to start cleaning water leaving their farms. That water contains phosphorus, the main ingredient in fertilizer, which at high levels damages Everglades wildlife. The water moves from farms into the Everglades.

The goal of the cleanup is to get runoff clean enough that it stops harming the Everglades. Twice, the state has set deadlines for the farmers to meet that standard, and twice they have lobbied for and received delays.

To make things look better – since district taxpayers also are paying for the cleanup - the water district for years has issued yearly reports showing that the farmers’ actions – known as Best Management Practices (BMPs) – have cut the levels of phosphorus. True enough, but the farmers still haven’t met the final standard. Also, using an “average” is like saying that if Warren Buffett and two truck drivers are in a bar, their average net worth is about $15 billion. Everyone looks artificially better.

In some parts of the Everglades Agriculture Area, says Audubon of Florida lobbyist Charles Lee, phosphorus levels are at 500 or 600 parts per billion. The standard is 10 parts per billion. One of the worst “hot spots,” Lee says, is the basin that empties into the Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge west of Boca Raton. The average is “a formula to trumpet success that isn’t there.”

A federal lawsuit led to the Everglades Forever Act, and a court order compels the state to make the farmers hit the final standard. How long must Florida wait for the U.S. Department of Justice to put the hammer down?

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You can email Randy Schultz at randy@bocamag.com

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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.