Rising water

When you think of places at risk from rising water, would you think first of Delray Medical Center, which is about 4 miles from the Atlantic Ocean?

In fact, the hospital is one of most vulnerable places in Delray, according to Nancy Schneider, leader of the city’s new Rising Waters Task Force. The task force got that news at its meeting last week.

Recall that during the freak monsoon last January, water got a foot deep in Delray Medical Center’s parking lot and then began flooding the first floor. The interesting thing is why the hospital is so vulnerable. As it turns out, Schneider told me in an interview Wednesday, the task force learned that the ground water table in that area is very high, making the area more prone to flooding.

Schneider lives in a condo on the barrier island in Delray Beach. She is the local staff member of the Institute for Sustainable Communities, her position financed with a grant from the Kresge Foundation. This year, she made a presentation to the city about climate change, sea level rise and the implications for coastal communities. Mayor Cary Glickstein suggested that Schneider form a task force, which began meeting this summer.

The goal, Schneider said, is to make recommendations that will help Delray Beach make capital improvement decisions that will save money by heading off problems. To that end, the group calls itself the Rising Waters Task Force, as opposed to Rising Seas Task Force. Though sea level rise is a critical issue for Florida, Schneider said the term can make problems seem “too far off.” Despite where Schneider lives, the group wants to stress that the issue is “not just the beach people’s problem.” Indeed, Schneider says Delray residents in the Intracoastal Waterway Basin to the west are more at risk than her because residents of the barrier island live on a ridge.

In earlier posts about South Florida and climate change, I quoted scientists as pointing out that Palm Beach County is in better shape than Broward and Miami-Dade. Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach already are experiencing significant problems from sea level rise. Some coastal areas of Broward and Miami-Dade actually are below sea level, like New Orleans. Starting in Palm Beach County, elevations rise.

Still, that distinction means only that governments in Palm Beach County have more time, which they should not waste. Some aren’t. Schneider says representatives from Lantana, Lake Worth, Gulf Stream and especially Boynton Beach have attended task force meetings and asked for more information. Curiously, Schneider has not seen the same level of interest from Boca Raton. “Nothing has ignited,” she said. Schneider points out the obvious: “They’re the first city” in Palm Beach after Broward.

Maybe it’s a culture thing. Though Boca stresses such things as growth around transportation hubs, Delray Beach has a “sustainability officer,” a Green Implementation Advisory Board and a “Sustainability” page on the city’s website. While Gov. Rick Scott tries to bob and weave on the issues of global warming and climate change, saying that he’s “not a scientist,” plenty of other non-scientists in cities through Florida are trying to plan for what clearly is happening. Good for them.

Atlantic Crossing note

Last week, writing about Delray Beach’s review of the city’s Land Development Regulations, I referenced the Atlantic Crossing project, saying that it received “huge waivers” when the city commission approved it. I got the following response from Don DeVere, vice president of Ohio-based Edwards Companies. It is overseeing development of Atlantic Crossing, a joint venture of Edwards and Delray Beach-based CDS International Holdings.

“The blog mention of Atlantic Crossing getting ‘huge waivers’ is inaccurate—there wasn’t a single waiver asked for or granted, unlike a number of other recently approved projects.

“If you are referring to conditional use, it’s no small distinction and more than a matter of semantics. Conditional use isn’t an exception to the rules. It’s by right when a project meets the city’s stated requirements, which include a mix of uses and types of units, amenities, etc. Conditional use recognizes the need for flexibility as a tool to achieve good design, and it requires that the applicant provide additional features desired by the city, such as workforce housing.

“Atlantic Crossing’s conditional use for height and density has been used very responsibly. Less than 8 percent of the project will be at the full height allowed, and the density—39 units per acre—is substantially below that granted to other subsequently approved projects.

“Big picture, Atlantic Crossing works completely within the City’s regulatory framework, and, in fact, exceeds City requirements in a number of areas. For example, Atlantic Crossing provides surplus parking, generous green space and numerous green initiatives, all exceeding city standards.”

Thursday pension talks

Thursday could be a really big day for Boca Raton’s future. At 9 a.m., the city holds a negotiating session with the police union on the city’s pension and wage proposals.

As I reported earlier, Boca Raton is asking for numerous major changes to the defined-benefit plan for police officers. All are designed to reduce the pension plan’s unfunded liabilities over the next 30 years.

Thursday’s session will not involve the mayor and city council. Staff and outsider lawyers will represent Boca Raton. The mayor and council, though, must approve any agreement the city’s negotiators present. It has been weeks since the city made its offer, so this session will be very interesting. Any agreement between the city and the union must be in place by Oct. 1, the start of the new budget year, or Boca’s police officers will be working without a contract.

If the city holds firm on pension reform and the union pushes back hard, the two sides could be at impasse. But the stakes are high enough that if Boca Raton doesn’t see real pension reform, impasse will be necessary.

Same sex marriage

One of the last actions by Diana Lewis as a Palm Beach County Circuit Court judge will have been to declare Florida’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

Lewis lost her bid for reelection Tuesday to Jessica Ticktin. This month, ruling in a probate case, Lewis became the fourth state judge in the last few weeks to rule that the 2008 ban violates the U.S. Constitution. Lewis came at the issue indirectly, from a divorce involving a same-sex couple that had married in Vermont. Other rulings came in cases that directly challenged the ban.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who has supported the ban, had indicated that she would appeal the Miami-Dade and Monroe rulings. Lawyers for same-sex couples seeking to marry had predicted that the two cases would be combined, and perhaps sent directly from the 3rd District Court of Appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.

Last week, though, Robert Hinkle became the fifth judge in Florida—and the first federal judge—to rule against the ban. Afterward, Bondi declared that she now wants the U.S. Supreme Court to rule. What’s up?

My guess is that Bondi wants to lower her profile on this issue. Like others trying to defend state bans, Bondi has sounded sillier and sillier as she claims that ending the ban would cause “irreparable harm.” To whom? This from a woman who has been divorced twice.

Bondi’s negative ratings are high, in large part because of her comments about same-sex marriage. It’s an election year, and while she will have a huge advantage in money and name recognition over Democrat George Sheldon, the usually publicity-hungry Bondi is getting the wrong kind of publicity on same-sex marriage. She claims that she “took an oath to uphold” the Florida Constitution and the voter-approved ban, but even the voters don’t get to amend the constitution if the amendment is illegal.

Home prices

Can there be too much good news? Perhaps, when it comes to home prices.

Recent reports show that Palm Beach County’s real estate market continues to recover. Obviously, that’s good. The average price for an existing home is about $290,000, a dramatic recovery from where prices fell when the bubble burst in 2007-08. The county’s tax roll was $166 billion in 2010. This year, it probably will exceed $190 billion.

As prices rise, fewer homeowners are underwater on their mortgages, and fewer houses go into foreclosure. But it may be beneficial that recent price increases have been smaller than last year or earlier this year.

Remember that we got into trouble not that long ago when prices hit unrealistically high levels, because so many homes were being built not to live in but to flip. At the peak, in late 2005, the average home price in Palm Beach County topped $420,000. Governments had what they considered easy money. People talked of using their home to finance their retirement. Then the party ended.

Boca Raton and Delray Beach have it better than most other areas. The price recovery has been even stronger. Foreclosed homes are being bought and renovated. Let us hope, though, that the market stays warm or even hot, without getting overheated.

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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.