By Rich Pollack
Should the oceanfront town of Highland Beach become part of the larger Boca Raton?
At least one of the larger city’s council members thinks it might be a good idea. Highland Beach officials and other residents whom The Coastal Star asked disagreed.
In a Facebook post in late August in which he complained that Highland Beach’s website was down, Boca Raton Deputy Mayor Jeremy Rodgers floated the idea and asked residents of both communities for their thoughts.
“I’d love to bring world-class Boca Raton services, parks, libraries and staff to Highland Beach and at the same time expand our Boca Raton, Florida coastline by bringing Highland Beach into Boca,” he wrote. “Overall costs would drop for residents of both cities when all services (water, sewer, police, fire) were accounted for.”
Rodgers, in the post, said he would be interested in hearing from city residents as well as those from the town to get their thoughts.
“Is this worth exploring?” he asked.
In Highland Beach the response to the idea has been anything but welcoming. “We’re very happy here in Highland Beach,” said resident Harry Anwar, who can look out the window of his home in the Boca Highland Beach Club and Marina community and see Boca Raton. “What are they going to give us that we don’t already have?”
Anwar, vice president of the Boca Highland umbrella association as well as vice president of Braemar Isle, his condominium within the development, pointed out that Highland Beach has a library, a Police Department, a water plant and a beautiful beach.
“We have a good everything,” he said. “Why do we need Boca?”
During a town commission meeting late last month, Highland Beach commissioners said they would not be supportive of Rodgers’ idea.
That was good news to at least one resident who voiced opposition to the plan.
“I hope this commission says ‘Hell no,’ ” resident Tim Burnich said.
Rodgers thinks Highland Beach residents, who, along with Boca residents, would have to approve a merger before it could happen, might benefit from the quality services his city offers.
“I’d put our services against those of any city or town in the country,” he said.
Were the two municipalities to merge, Boca Raton residents would have access to Highland Beach services.
While Rodgers thinks bringing the two communities together would benefit both, Highland Beach Mayor Carl Feldman says Boca Raton would probably get the better part of the deal. “There’s a lot of tax money in Highland Beach and it wouldn’t cost Boca Raton anything to take over our services,” he said.
Rodgers admits Boca Raton would benefit by receiving tax revenue from the narrow, 3-mile-long coastal community, which has about 4,000 residents and taxable property values of more than $2.4 billion, according to the Palm Beach County property appraiser, but he says there’s more to the idea.
“Certainly the tax base is a reason but it’s not just that,” he said. “It’s the sum of the parts.”
Highland Beach officials also pointed out that the town’s proposed tax rate for the coming year of $3.25 per $1,000 of assessed property value is lower than Boca Raton’s proposed $3.67.
Feldman said a merger has been brought up by elected officials in Boca Raton a few times, but the idea never gained traction.
“The residents of Highland Beach are not interested in joining Boca,” Feldman said. “Those that I spoke to, and there were many, said they didn’t want to be a part of any other city. Our residents don’t want to give up their hometown that they’re so proud of.”
Feldman said residents he spoke with are happy with Highland Beach’s services and wouldn’t give up living in a small community. “That’s why people moved to Highland Beach, they want the intimacy of a small town,” he said. “It’s like a family here.”
Rodgers said he wants to hear from residents of both communities to gauge whether they think bringing the municipalities together would bring benefits.
“I’d be interested in Highland Beach residents’ weighing in,” he said, adding he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
While it is common for cities to annex unincorporated areas, mergers of two communities are highly unusual.
“It’s rare, it’s difficult and hasn’t happened in Palm Beach County in my 35 years practicing municipal and government law here,” said Highland Beach Town Attorney Glen Torcivia.
In fact, the last time two Florida towns became one was in 1969, when the city of Eau Gallie in Brevard County merged with its neighbor Melbourne, according to Lynn Tipton, director of Florida League of Cities University, the educational wing of the Florida League of Cities.
Highland Beach Vice Mayor Bill Weitz says he’s not too concerned about his community disappearing.
“In my opinion, the possibility of Boca Raton assimilating Highland Beach has equal probability of Highland Beach assimilating Boca Raton,” he said.