Sunday, August 9, 2009

Some observations...

Just replaced my keyboard so that explains the small break in new posts here. I use my laptop like a desktop when not mobile and the old wireless keyboard developed problems working regularly - and more than a little clunky. So, now I'm back in the saddle again.

If only Lake Worth's problems were as easy to solve. I've heard some feedback from the Thursday meeting regarding the affordable housing projects - one for 52 units of rental workforce housing on 6th Avenue South and F street with 6 units being affordable rentals and another for 126 units of Senior rental housing on the NW corner of Lake Worth Road and Boutwell with 13 units being very affordable. The Commission voted 3-2 (Clemens, Lowe, Golden in the affirmative) to grant $200,000 each - but whether the projects receive the money will depend on a housing tax credit lottery.

There were some comments made by Commissioners that concern me - that people have reported to me. The meeting was at 10:30 a.m. and I happened to be consumed with other tasks - as I am sure that most of Lake Worth's working population was. And, it so happens that the latest audio of a Commission meeting available on the city's website at the current time is from the special meeting of July 23.

Apparently, one prominent Commissioner made comments to the effect that the city is essentially built out, that the Gateway zoning district needs significant changes and that instead of building buildings, we should be creating parks. Parks good - any development bad - shut off mind and open mouth.

If this Commissioner is serious about this, then I suggest she work on calculating the value of all vacant and derelict properties in the city. If she needs help in finding them, we can examine an aerial map or perhaps drive around the city. Areas that I would guide her to would be along any of our major transportation corridors in the city. Once we determine the value, we would add a factor to reflect just compensation for the property owners. Then we'd sharpen our pencils and look at the net effect of taking all of that private property off the tax roles. Remember, we were the municipality with the second highest decline in property values in Palm Beach County - 24%. Then we multiply that over a good number of years - maybe the term of the length of bond to support the city's purchase of that private property. Finally, we compute the final figure and have the voters pass a multi-million dollar bond issue to support all of these land purchases for parks. Oh, and we can't forget the cost for maintaining and improving the parks (buildings, huts, sheds.)

Then we will for once and for all be able to say goodbye to all that nasty development, tear up our Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Code. We'd spend our days working to pay off the bonds, paying our high millage rate and planning barbecues in our new park system.

And you say, Wes, that could never happen, have you lost your mind? And I would answer that when I hear that one answer to the Sunset property morass is for the city to buy it, it leads one to think that the scenario I painted is indeed possible. If that was an option at the time the Planning and Zoning Board was considering the original proposal, wouldn't that have saved everyone a lot of time, money and grief! But how practical a solution is that when the City decides it doesn't like what a private property owner is proposing for their property. I would say it would get to be a fairly expensive proposition.

Isn't that going in the wrong direction? Wouldn't the smart thing to do be to make the city an attractive place to do business and invest - so that we could rely on our own property values to support funding of our basic services and cover our utilities' fixed and operating costs - while keeping our millage rate below confiscatory levels?

New investment dollars are out there - it's a matter of creating a stable and predictable regulatory environment so that investors believe that they have a chance at a decent return on that investment.

That stable and predictable regulatory environment does not exist in Lake Worth. Instead, we have a Comprehensive Plan that is not in compliance after over a million dollars spent in a visioning and plan creation process that has yet to bear fruit. It's been two and a half years since I have been on the Planning and Zoning Board and at the time we were meeting every week - working on just that task. This month it may finally make it across the finish line, only to be held up by a possible injunction on the part of the owners of the Sunset property - which could result in more years of "limbo."

I responded to someone asking questions about historic rehabilitation in Lake Worth - what the process would be for someone to come in and take one of our more notable historic structures, restore it (the real definition of restore) and move their headquarters here. I started by suggesting they talk to our city planner - who is barely out of school and has little historic preservation experience other than this job. Then I said that they'd have to make an application before the Historic Resource Preservation Board, which is part of the Planning and Zoning Board. Then I remembered that the Commission wants to separate the Historic Preservation Board from the Planning and Zoning Board - so I told them of that situation. I said that you really don't know right now who would be sitting on that board, so I wouldn't know who you should talk to. And then I thought about having them talk with someone on the City Commission and thought better of that. So this potential restoration of a historic building in our downtown that could be a destination and an employer is just left with layer upon layer of uncertainty.

Uncertainty does not attract investment. Investment with money in the city is not necessarily all bad - message to those on the Commission who adhere to the policy of "no."

You could actually craft a Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Regulations (a zoning code) that give predictable results for all sides of the equation - public and private sectors. You can even craft ways for the development to pay for its impacts to offset infrastructure costs. If the regulations are perceived to be fair and relatively unchangeable, then investment money will flow. Until then, we will continue to be red-lined by anyone with significant money to invest in our community.

Building permits, inspections and customer service all create more levels of uncertainty in Lake Worth.

Why isn't anyone addressing the need for stability and predictability in our regulatory environment? I believe it's because they understand the facts as I have laid them out here - that it will send development away. In a way, it's a passive-aggressive way to say no to investment. Let the process, or lack thereof, give them the answer of whether or not to invest in Lake Worth's future.

The means become the end.

By encouraging investment in our community, we could be correcting imbalances identified by Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council that show we have to travel in our fossil fuel burning vehicles to places outside the city to meet many of our basic needs to live - food, clothing, housewares, etc. We could be doing more to plan for a more diverse way to travel to and from our workplaces. We could attract employers that actually pay a decent living wage and use our languishing Park of Commerce. We could jointly plan with our neighboring municipalities on sharing of resources and coordinated planning.

Or, like the current City Commission chooses, not to go after $23.3 million of Federal dollars to address real needs in our neighborhoods suffering from the foreclosure crisis. Or, like the current City Commission chooses, we could balk at adhering to any and all agreements with other government entities - making sure that the message is sent "Lake Worth is unpredictable and uncooperative."

Enough for now. I'm starting to sound like someone running for office.


Luther Nadler said...

Wes, the Clerk’s copy of the meeting seems worse than your fears, assumptions and conclusions.

Commissioner Mulvehill prefaced her objections by asking the question: “Where exactly is the Pugh site?”. WHERE EXACTLY IS THE SITE! She then went on to ask, after receiving the preliminary market study from the Senior Housing applicant that showed the need for both developments: “Why would we approve these kind of developments, all we would be doing is moving people from substandard housing and then those properties would deteriorate and we would have tall grass in their front yards”. Mulvehill actually said that she didn’t want to move individuals and families from substandard housing to new housing!

Commissioner Jennings went way beyond the absurd remark about Lake Worth being built out. After Mayor Clemens pointed out that the return to the City was 400-500% in fees vs. investment, Cara started with her—I represent the taxpayers so I must ask what are you going to do in excess of giving us a 400-500% return?---

We seem to be offered about $1,800,000 in fees for the Budget Year 2009-10 vs. an investment in 2010-11 of $400,000. This is in the face of a pending $1,300,000 Budget deficit pending for 09-10 at a 4.99 millage rate. That 3-2 vote took 3 hours!

Anonymous said...

Wes - you need to have the Herald publish this.

Anonymous said...

Besides the Herald, I would recommend a follow up article by you Wes. Especially after this 1PM Workshop tomorrow.

Since we elected all these people who promised transparency, we seem to be getting alot of important meetings that only the elderly, unemployed and those who have trust funds can attend.

Anonymous said...

Spot on Wes

A while ago I did a preliminary calculation of reducing our building heights from 100 and 65 feet to 35 feet. The value at $15 a square foot was somewhere north of $14billion.