By Rich Pollack
Highland Beach’s efforts to enhance safety and aesthetics by replacing a 3-mile long walking path and improving the surrounding areas finally gained traction this year with the formation of an Ad Hoc Citizens Streetscape Committee, but now it seems the town’s long-discussed streetscape project may have hit a temporary road block.
At a Town Council workshop meeting late last month, Mayor Carl Feldman received a lukewarm reception from two commissioners when presenting the committee’s recommendations for improvements and a proposed $2.1 million budget for the project.
After three months of discussion, the committee, chaired by Feldman, brought forth a series of recommendations that included spending close to $1 million to replace the aging asphalt sidewalk on the west side of State Road A1A with a 5-foot-wide, decorative concrete walking path.
The committee also recommended replacing gateways on the north and south ends of town, adding new signage, lighting and landscaping. In addition, the recommendation includes installing four 12-foot decorative posts for street signs that would include the town’s logo.
In its latest proposed budget, the committee included $342,000 for landscaping along the path as well, although there were no specifics on where the landscaping would go.
During discussion of the project, Commissioner Rhoda Zelniker said she supported the concept of a streetscape — and has for years — but thinks the proposal needs more work.
“I cannot support this streetscape project at this time,” she said. “We can’t afford to spend $2 million and not do it right.”
While commissioners said they hoped to have the proposal finalized in time to bring it to voters in the March 2018 election, Zelniker suggested taking a step back and delaying the vote until the November 2018 general election so they could do more research.
Feldman proposed paying for the streetscape from town coffers and repaying the money with funds from the town’s portion of a 1-cent countywide sales tax increase rather than borrow money, but the plan still must be approved by voters because a referendum is required for any town spending over $350,000.
“We need a comprehensive plan,” Zelniker said. “A quick streetscape is not the answer for our town, as beautiful as it is.”
Both Zelniker and Commissioner Elyse Riesa said they would like to see the Florida Department of Transportation, which has oversight for the state road, more involved in discussions of the project.
“It’s my opinion that FDOT should have a seat at the table,” said Riesa, who, like Zelniker, thinks the scope of the project had never been clearly defined. “We need to coordinate with them.”
Both commissioners expressed concern that a transportation department drainage project along A1A could have an impact on the streetscape project and said they need more information about the drainage project from the state.
Feldman countered, saying the town had been communicating with DOT on several portions of the project.
The mayor said he was concerned about moving the referendum back to November 2018 and hoped to keep it moving forward.
“If we wait to do all the things you’re asking for, it will never get done,” he said.
Faced with a potential stalemate that could slow down the streetscape project, Town Manager Valerie Oakes suggested commissioners revisit the issue at a meeting in early September and go through the project’s budget together line-by-line.
“The commission needs to determine the scope of work,” she said.