Saturday, April 19, 2008

Reflections on Last Tuesday's City Commission Meeting...

It was the first City Commission meeting I have attended in person for a while. The last few I've been listening on the Internet stream live from the Commission Chambers. A couple times this week, things have come up in conversations with other residents and I have wanted to go back and review Commission meetings from weeks or months ago. Now, other communities and Palm Beach County have a way to do that on their websites - essentially archiving the digital file of the meeting for public access. But, alas, that ability is not yet available here in Lake Worth. Instead, we have to go to City Hall, pay a $1 and deplete the world of the resources it takes to produce one CD. And, in the process, we create one more hurdle to public access of information and open government. But, I digress.

The blurry inset picture I took using my cellphone from a position in the back of the room during the meeting. My main interests were the discussion on the status of the Florida East Coast Transit study, the issue related to signing up for a contract with the County to supply water in lieu of a revamped RO plant or other alternative and the appeal of the Historic Resource Preservation Board decision on giving a time extension for the approved work on the Gulf Stream Hotel. I covered the appeal item in a previous post, but will elaborate on it more in this one. My crystal ball, it turns out, was not as fuzzy as the picture - it was very accurate.
The representative gave an update of the project and where it is the timeline. They have completed the initial environmental assessment, which is being reviewed by various levels of the Federal government. Their findings should be out within the next month or two. You can check out the current status of the study by clicking here. I was pleased to hear that they have since expanded the possible locations of transit stations to include 6th Avenue South, Lake Avenue and 10th Avenue North. This would make sense, as the Tr-Rail commuter rail already in existence on the western railroad tracks, serves the medium haul route and is more of a commuter rail in that way. However, the FEC would lend itself to more of a "local" service. In many ways, eligible station locations could be found at any road that has an exit on I-95.

The representative reminded everyone that there is no more room on any other north/south transportation corridor. In many ways, we are going "back to the future" in that this was the original alignment that was used for Flagler's East Coast Railway and brought the regions first visitors and inhabitants with it. There line is currently used for freight only and the FEC does not want to give up that business, so double tracking is likely - which can be time-consuming. We are probably at least 5 years or more away from any initiation of the project in a real sense, but the gears are in motion. It did generate a lot of positive public comment, which occurred right after the presentation.

You really should listen to the Jaime Lerner talk that I posted earlier this morning. Please click on the biographical information for him as well. He reminds everyone in his discussion that in order to have viable transit alternatives to the passenger automobile, you have to have reliable transit with short headways (time between buses). In order to make this work, you need the density and intensity of development to support that transit system. When the representative presented the relative project ridership on the various station locations, the Lake Worth station didn't compare as well with other locations. That is reflected by our existing land use policies as found in the City's Comprehensive Plan. Commissioner Vespo rightly pointed out that ours in under-going changes and includes many new policies that are transit supportive.

There will be a community charrette sponsored by the study officials in June or July of this year to solicit additional public input and catch up on what the current policies are that are transit supportive. I personally know that Kim DeLaney of Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council has attended our Planning and Zoning meetings and helped guide the creation of supportive policies. I am anxious for those to see the light of day and become official.

The next item, after the consent agenda was approved unanimously, without any items being pulled, concerned the proposed contract to buy water from the County. This was done in response to Commission direction to halt work on the RO plant due significantly increased cost and permitting difficulties. The permitting difficulties are not just related to the outfall in the ocean, as originally proposed, but even for deep well injection. However, there was a significant amount of discussion about the possibility for that type of waste disposal, but really nothing definitive. Some said that permitting was possible, others not - but no one knew for sure. Judge Judy would have said that it is hearsay evidence and inadmissible.

There was a lot of comment from workers in our water plant about the implications of going with the County - mostly negative consequences. There was also the suggestion that the City's RO plant could be put into operation and actually be a money maker for the City. The Town of Palm Beach is interested in finding other sources of potable water as they are highly dissatisfied with their current provider, the City of West Palm Beach. Here are some comments from Mayor McDonald, Town of Palm Beach from their regular March 11, 2008 meeting:

So we had a strategic opportunity to at least contemplate the alternative to provide water to the Town of Palm Beach with our own - expensive - RO plant. But, couldn't that arrangement have helped pay for the plant, keep our rates competitive, ensure our supply and help maintain the high level of water quality that we enjoy now? Unfortunately, we will never really know as the decision was made to go with the renewable County contract - which includes a substantial "buy-in". The vote was 3-2, with Mayor Clemens and Commissioners Lowe and Vespo voting for the County alternative.

There are many things to blame here and some disturbing historical precedents. One is a murky interpretation of the original decision to discontinue work on the RO plant from a couple of Commission meetings ago. Did it really seal the fate on spending any additional money on the project, did it somehow make it so that it could be altered and reconsidered or was the RO prject ompletely unplugged? Staff attempted to provide information from Mock Roos, the City's engineering firm, by default. I would not consider Mock Roos to be an impartial provider of information here as they would benefit from a decision to go forward with the RO plant. But the information from staff was sketchy at best and something that could be relied upon in making a long term decision related to the City's potable water supply.

By making this decision at this time, we have also fallen into an oft-repeated pattern that involves short-sighted choices on issues of long term consequence. One need only look at the decision made long ago by the City to de-annex the barrier island property south of Sloan's curve. Imagine the revenue generated from the buildings built along that stretch, now in the Town of Palm Beach. I would venture to say that if that land was still within the municipal boundaries of Lake Worth, that our beach would be a much different place today. Those with a vested interest in the maintenance of that facility as a public part would have an active role in our political process and would demand that things be different. Similar decisions have been made or not been made regarding our electric utility - the supposed upgrade of distribution facilities, long term energy contracts, etc.

More time and effort should have been expended to find the best answer - not the most expedient. Are we willing to become a client state to Palm Beach County? What price are we willing to pay for autonomy? What strategic opportunities exist to strengthen the City's competitive position and, ultimately, its quality of life?

The good news with this item was that the appeal was denied on a vote of 3-2, with Commissioners Jennings and Golden dissenting, as predicted. The matter before them only involved whether the time extension granted related the Certificate of Appropriateness approval was made according to the procedures established for the Historic Resource Preservation Board. They found that the decision really was made at the sole discretion of the board. Based upon the information presented them, they made the appropriate decision. There was discussion about whether or not there were "unavoidable delays" - Commissioner Jennings didn't think that included the legal action initiated by Mr. Celi, the appellant, on a previous matter - the original Certificate of Appropriateness.

This item - the most recent extension - came after I had been off the board for a year. My last meeting was the second meeting in December, 2006. There was some question how Sharon Jackson handled the application and the date that it was submitted in relation to the date that the original approval expired. Mr. LaFerrier, the new planning director, could not find the original application in the file or any record about when the time extension request was filed. This after searching the office for a rather long period of time during the meeting.

At any rate, this will likely be the subject of new legal action against the City and the owner of the Gulf Stream Hotel. All for little apparent merit or cause, in my opinion.