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12310840488?profile=RESIZE_400xJamie Daniels with his mother, Lisa Daniels-Goldman. She and Jamie’s father, Ken Daniels, created the Jamie Daniels Foundation to help young adults struggling with substance abuse. Jamie, 23, died in a Boynton Beach sober home. Photo provided by Jamie Daniels Foundation

 

By Pat Beall

Jamie Daniels made it just 228 days in Palm Beach County’s fraud-ravaged addiction treatment system before overdosing in a local sober home seven years ago this month.

A college graduate and aspiring lawyer, Daniels landed in the heart of a $746 million scheme built on exploiting drug users and bilking insurance companies.

Delray Beach osteopath Michael Ligotti was a key player and profiteer who pocketed millions from it, prosecutors said. When he was sentenced to two decades behind bars in January, a Department of Justice press release heralded his arrest and conviction as the largest addiction fraud case ever brought by the DOJ.

Ligotti, though, was not locked up. Instead, he remained free as he worked with prosecutors on investigating and prosecuting other fraudsters. And while he was booked into prison last week, prosecutors are now asking a Miami federal judge on Dec. 8 to shave eight years off his sentence. 

Jamie’s mother, Lisa Daniels-Goldman, was in the courtroom when the original 20-year penalty was handed down. She knew his cooperation would delay his entering prison and hasten his exit.  

Daniels-Goldman said prosecutors assured her that even with a sentence reduction, Ligotti would never serve less than 10 or 11 years. “I want to make sure it’s no less than that,” she said. She can’t travel to the hearing Friday in Miami. But she intends to make a victim’s statement on her son’s behalf.

“He doesn’t deserve a quiet entrance to prison,” she said of Ligotti. “He doesn’t deserve to be forgotten.”

One test, millions of dollars

It would be hard to overstate the scope and toll of the addiction treatment fraud sweeping through Palm Beach County by 2013.

The county was an international for-profit treatment destination. Posters plugging addiction help in Palm Beach County greeted arriving passengers at Orlando International Airport. High-wealth drug users could access concierge care in beachfront homes with gourmet meals.

Estimates pegged the industry at $1 billion, making it one of Palm Beach County’s largest industries.

And it was rife with abuse.

A urine test that will detect drugs is cheap. It can be bought for as little as $25 at local drugstores.

By contrast, a single, sophisticated “confirmatory” urine test could reap thousands of dollars from a patient’s insurance company.

People in sober homes and treatment centers were needlessly tested multiple times a week, generating staggering insurance payouts. In one case reported by The Palm Beach Post in 2015, nine months of urine testing totaled $304,318. In another instance, the parents of a young woman who overdosed in a sober home after four weeks received urine test bills topping $30,000.

But insurance paid only if a doctor would green-light the expensive test as medically necessary.

As medical director for dozens of facilities, Ligotti obliged, said prosecutors. In addition to ordering millions of dollars in needless tests, they said he prescribed addictive drugs to patients from his Whole Health clinic in Delray Beach. That included benzodiazepines, a drug lethally mixed with opioids by people who are addicted.

The scheme reached into the pocketbooks of employees at Amtrak, Bank of America and the state of New Jersey who sought treatment and found fraud, an attorney for Aetna Insurance testified at Ligotti’s sentencing hearing. Aetna and organizations using Aetna paid $24 million to providers in the scheme, he said, but worse was the continuing fallout once it was exposed: It created distrust of addiction treatment by people who might need it the most. 

Even after a federal subpoena issued in 2016 put Ligotti on notice that he was under investigation, he continued ordering tests, an FBI agent testified.

He was indicted in 2020 on 12 counts of health care fraud and money laundering, and one count of conspiracy to commit health care and wire fraud.

He pleaded guilty to the conspiracy count in 2022. Other charges were dropped.

Fallout beyond fraud

Like many other physicians arrested in local treatment fraud crackdowns, Ligotti was never charged with the overdose or death of a person seeking help for addiction.

But the fallout from urine testing schemes extended far beyond financial fraud.

That’s because unscrupulous local sober home owners and addiction treatment operators didn’t need people seeking treatment to stay drug-free.

They needed people with a drug use diagnosis, insurance and a supply of urine, not a commitment to sobriety. As a result, some sober homes advertised as safe and drug-free turned a blind eye to drug use. People hoping for help wound up overdosing.

Jamie Daniels was among them.

The Michigan State University graduate clerked at a law firm and was studying for his law school entrance exam.  

But he had struggled to stay sober since at least college, where his family believed he had easy access to opioids.

In July 2016, Jamie, 23, did what thousands of others had done and flew to Palm Beach County for treatment.

On Dec. 7,  he overdosed here.

Then came a wave of insurance bill records totaling tens of thousands of dollars for urine screens and blood tests, including those ordered by Ligotti for Jamie when he was in Michigan, not Florida.

“It's one thing to have an addiction and not being able to overcome it because the addiction overtakes you,” Jamie’s father, longtime Detroit Red Wings play-by-play broadcaster Ken Daniels told ESPN. “But then when bad people get involved and they contribute to it, it makes you sick.”

ESPN produced a documentary on the testing fraud and Jamie’s death. When the production crew showed up at Ligotti’s Delray office, he denied ordering the tests. His identity had been stolen, he told reporters: “I’m the victim.”

Paying a price

It’s not clear how many other schemes Ligotti has helped prosecutors identify and take to trial. However, records show he offered evidence in one Central Florida case involving rural hospitals and high-priced bogus drug testing that led to multiple convictions. And the judge in that case found that Ligotti had information on people not yet arrested in “a large number of healthcare facilities across the country.”

“I want them all to have to pay a price for what they did,” explained Daniels-Goldman of her reluctant acceptance of Ligotti’s freedom while he helped put others behind bars.

But other aspects rankled Daniels-Goldman and others. It was late May before Ligotti finally surrendered his license to practice medicine and another three months before the state’s Board of Osteopathic Medicine formally accepted the relinquishment. In June, his expected prison entry date was pushed back to December in part because he was providing testimony in the Central Florida case.  In July, he received court permission to take his family to an upscale resort hotel at Universal Studios.

Ligotti entered prison Dec. 1. Citing his cooperation, prosecutors the same day asked a federal court judge in Miami to consider cutting Ligotti’s sentence from 20 years to 12, a 40% reduction. Ligotti’s attorney is seeking a larger reduction.

Neither his attorney nor prosecutors responded to requests for comment.

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By Mary Hladky

Two well-known candidates are vying to replace term-limited Deputy Mayor Monica Mayotte in the March 19 Boca Raton election.

Andy Thomson is making a new bid to serve on the City Council after he resigned last year to pursue his candidacy for the Florida House District 91 seat. He narrowly lost that race to Peggy Gossett-Seidman.

Brian Stenberg challenged Mayotte in 2021 when she was seeking her second and final council term. Mayotte prevailed easily, winning 58.8% of the vote.

Council member Yvette Drucker, who is seeking her second three-year term, is being challenged by perennial candidate Bernard Korn, who has failed in his previous bids for office.

All four qualified to run by the Nov. 9 deadline.

Korn initially filed to run for both Mayotte’s Seat D and Drucker’s Seat C but dropped out of the Seat D race in October. As was the case in his previous candidacies, he produced a driver’s license and voter registration card showing he lives on the barrier island at 720 Marble Way, but his campaign financial reports list his address as a P.O. box in the city’s downtown post office.

In addition, county property records show that Korn and his wife still own a home and claim a homestead exemption for 19078 Skyridge Circle, in an unincorporated area far west of the city.

As of the most recent campaign finance reports, Thomson, an attorney, is by far the best funded candidate, raising $51,140 as of Sept. 30. He has drawn support from well-known developers, attorneys, architects and many residents.

Stenberg, the vice president of a medical office real estate management firm and member of the Boca Raton Housing Authority and Palm Beach County Planning commissions, has raised $770, which includes $620 in loans to his campaign.

Drucker, a former human resource manager and longtime volunteer with many organizations, has loaned her campaign $500. Korn, a real estate bro-ker, has loaned his campaign $5,150.

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By Mary Hladky

The team assembled to develop the Center for Arts and Innovation is moving quickly to make the proposed cultural campus in Mizner Park a reality.

In a Nov. 27 update to City Council members, center chair and CEO Andrea Virgin said she expects to submit a new project design to the city in April and a site plan one year later.

The team has expanded to include theater, cost and safety consultants as well as a local architect, landscape architect, structural engineer, parking designer and construction manager.

The center’s board of directors has four new members who are experienced with large-scale commercial projects, including Michael Kaufman, CEO of Kaufman Lynn Construction, Camilo Miguel, CEO of Mast Capital, and Ian Weiner, CEO of PEBB Enterprises.

She also noted two significant previously announced developments: The center has surpassed city-imposed fundraising requirements and has selected the renowned Renzo Piano Building Workshop, whose partners include Pritzker Architecture Prize-winner Renzo Piano, to design the performing arts complex.

“I cannot underscore enough how significant this announcement was,” she said of the selection of RPBW, noting it had garnered local, national and international media coverage.

“We deeply believe this project will change the city,” Antoine Chaaya, an RPBW partner, told council members.
Center officials’ Oct. 21 deadline to raise $25.4 million, which is 25% of hard construction costs for the project, came one year after the City Council approved a deal that allows the center to be built on city-owned land. They topped that by raising $26.4 million.

An anonymous donor contributed $10 million. Those who contributed $1 million or more are the James and Marta Batmasian Foundation, philanthropist and arts patron Elizabeth H. Dudley, the Kent Jordan Family, the Schmidt Family Foundation, the Edith and Martin Stein Family Foundation, and Virgin, in remembrance of her late first husband, Thomas J. Virgin, who died in a 2015 plane crash that claimed the lives of everyone onboard.

With a design team now in place, “it is pedal to the metal on fundraising,” Virgin said. She anticipates meeting a second fundraising deadline set for October without difficulty, but said there is uncertainty on how philanthropists will react to “what is going on geopolitically,” a reference to the Israel-Hamas war.

Center officials previously released stunning renderings of what the project could look like when finished. Those were not intended to be the final design, but rather to show the size and scope of the project, Virgin said.

Now that RPBW is onboard, the appearance will change, although the parameters of the project will not, she said.

“What is important is not to betray the city expectation,” Chaaya said.

While the estimated project cost has risen from $115 million to $140 million, that likely is not the final figure as construction costs continue to increase, Virgin said.

Team members expect to build the project all at once, but Virgin said they are prepared to build it in phases if necessary.

Under the deal with the city, the project must be completed by 2033. But Virgin wants to start construction in 2025, the year that marks the city’s 100th birthday, and finish it in 2028.

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By Mary Hladky

Mark Stahlbaum has a pigeon problem.

His neighbor feeds pigeons. The free meals draw ever more pigeons and they now number about 165. They poop on his house and cars, cause damage and create a smelly mess.

“I am horrified by what I have had to deal with over the past couple of years,” he told City Council members on Nov. 14.

Stahlbaum, who lives on Spanish River Boulevard, asked for a city ordinance that prohibits the feeding of pigeons and fines violators. “My neighbor is the shining example of why this ordinance is necessary,” he said.

After hearing from Stahlbaum before the meeting, Mayor Scott Singer asked city staff to draft one. Staff noted that people also are feeding other wildlife and expanded the ordinance to include prohibitions and fines for feeding ducks, geese, rodents, squirrels, raccoons, possums, iguanas and any other wildlife.

But what seemed like a routine matter quickly hit roadblocks at the council meeting.

Council members asked, what would this mean for people who feed feral cats? Why draft an ordinance based on one resident’s problem? How could the city effectively enforce a wildlife ordinance? Did the city need a general nuisance ordinance instead? If so, is it possible to list every thing that could be a nuisance?

And so, the wildlife ordinance was scrapped.

But a related matter lives on. In the course of drafting the ordinance, staff noticed that the city had enacted unrelated prohibitions but never had established fines that violators had to pay.

The prohibitions include the sale or distribution of polystyrene foam products on city property, use of balloons and confetti in outdoor areas on city property, construction activity occurring outside the specified times of day, and bulk and vegetative waste being placed outside of required collection times or not in required areas.

Council members appeared willing to vote on a resolution that sets fine amounts, but delayed acting until certain wording changes were made.

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By Mary Hladky


Residents wishing to address the City Council will have to speak quickly.

Council members approved an ordinance on Nov. 14 that reduces the time allotted to people who want to weigh in on city matters from 5 minutes to 3.

The intent is to shorten the length of meetings when many residents show up to speak on a hot button issue.

Deputy Mayor Monica Mayotte cast the only dissenting vote.

“Leave it at 5 minutes,” she said. “I think this doesn’t look good on us to do this. I feel this is shutting out the public.”

The change garnered little resistance from residents, however. Only two spoke against it.

Amy Price, a city resident and city employee, described the change as “offensive.”

“What message are you sending to the residents of Boca Raton?” she asked. “How do you think this comes across? … Reducing public comment is another way of suppressing the will of the people.”

But the council majority defended the time reduction.

Mayor Scott Singer noted that city staff had surveyed 49 cities in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties and the Palm Beach County Commission. Most had 3-minute speaking limits. Miami allows 2 minutes.

The new rule is not absolute, he said. The ordinance allows council members to revert to 5 minutes if they feel the extra time is warranted. Other council members also cited that flexibility.

Speaking in person is only one of many ways residents can and do communicate with the council, they said. Residents call, email and text.

“We are available all the time,” said council member Yvette Drucker.

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Highland Beach will welcome back seasonal residents and celebrate the arrival of the holidays with the annual Mingle & Jingle event set for Dec. 7.

Featuring food trucks, a deejay, kids crafts and the lighting of the town’s official Christmas tree, the outdoor event will be held at St. Lucy Catholic Church while construction continues for the new fire station in front of Town Hall.

A popular event that drew about 400 residents last year, the Mingle & Jingle will be from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. With parking limited, the town will provide trolley service to residents, beginning at 4:30 p.m. and with the last trolley leaving the church parking lot at about 8.

“With seasonal residents returning, this is our first chance to bring everyone back together,” said Terisha Cuebas, assistant town manager.

Food trucks lined up for the event include: Chick-fil-A, Mr. Burger, The Greek and How Ya Dough’n pizza. Desserts will be provided by Anna Bakes.

Also, members of the town’s Public Works Department will offer grilled hotdogs.

For more information visit the town’s website: www.highlandbeach.us

— Rich Pollack

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By Rich Pollack

When Highland Beach voters go to the polls in March, they’ll find three referendum questions on the ballot, two of which — if approved — could result in changes to the town charter.

The third referendum item on the ballot would give town leaders the green light to spend up to $3.5 million on a sewer pipe lining project to strengthen mains, including some that are more than 50 years old.

Town commissioners are also hoping voters will approve a charter change that would lift the town’s spending limit from $350,000 to $900,000, about what the cap — approved 32 years ago — would be in today’s dollars. The charter change would also include an annual increase in the spending limit based on the regional consumer price index.

Also on the ballot will be a housekeeping item that would give the town the option of having the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Canvassing Board serve as the town’s canvassing board during municipal elections.

Under the current charter, the town must form a canvassing board to review any questionable ballots in a municipal election and observe the ballot-counting processes for accuracy. The town board is required to include two members of the Town Commission, the town clerk and the county’s supervisor of elections.

One glitch: Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Wendy Link has told town leaders that she does not want to be part of the town’s canvassing board.

“We can’t compel her to sit on the board,” Town Manager Marshall Labadie said.

That puts the town in a precarious position of either having to change the charter, which requires a vote from residents, or not complying with the charter requirements.

“We have to do something because the way the charter reads now, we have to be in compliance,” said Mayor Natasha Moore, who has served on the town’s canvassing board twice.

Moore said that serving on the board requires attending a lot of meetings and being at the Supervisor of Elections Office on election night and waiting for ballots to come in. She said that during one of her terms on the board she didn’t get home until after midnight, even though voting ended at 7 p.m.

The mayor said she believes changing the charter so the town has the option of deciding to use its own canvassing board or the county’s with just a commission vote makes sense.

“This positions us the best way possible because we would have the discretion to choose whether to have our own canvassing board or delegate it to the county,” she said.

While they recognize that the ballot question could be confusing to some voters, town leaders say their hands are tied in efforts to get additional information to the public by a recently enacted state law that prohibits using tax dollars to provide information to residents about anything on the ballot.

“We can’t send flyers or group emails,” Labadie said. “We are encouraging residents to watch previous meetings or to come to Town Hall and read minutes.”

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By Rich Pollack

Highland Beach residents will see familiar faces on the Town Commission for another year, with the mayor, vice mayor and one commissioner all returning to their seats thanks to drawing no opposition.

With filing for a Town Commission seat ending late last month, Mayor Natasha Moore, Vice Mayor David Stern and Commissioner Judith Goldberg are all running unopposed.

All three say they are eager to continue serving, especially with several major projects coming to fruition, and believe the lack of opposition is the result of overall satisfaction among residents with the job that the commission is doing.

“Most people seem to be happy with the present board,” said Stern, who has been on the board for the last year, having first been appointed to fill the vacancy left when Peggy Gossett-Seidman resigned to run for — and eventually win — a seat in the state Legislature.

Stern served in that position until March, when an election was held to fill the seat for the remaining one year in Gossett-Seidman’s term. Goldberg defeated two other candidates to earn that commission seat.

Stern was reappointed to the commission as vice mayor when Moore was elevated to mayor following the death of Mayor Doug Hillman, who died shortly after winning a second term without opposition.

Moore said she is looking forward to seeing the implementation of a new fire rescue department — the first new department of its kind in Palm Beach County in more than 30 years — as well as other key projects in the town’s strategic plan.

“I like being involved in initiatives that positively impact our 3 miles of paradise,” she said, adding that she will remain the lone member of the commission living in a single-family home, giving people in that community a voice in town government.

While some in other beachside communities have chosen to abandon plans to run for election because of a new state law requiring local elected officials to fill out Form 6, a more detailed financial disclosure than previously requested, the incumbents in Highland Beach said they were not deterred.

“I would prefer not to have to fill out Form 6 but it wasn’t enough to prevent me from running,” Moore said.

Goldberg, who ran an aggressive campaign for commission a year ago, said there’s another reason for the lack of opposition this year.

“It’s expensive to run,” she said.

Also on the commission with the three returning members are Evalyn David, who will serve her final year before being term-limited out, and Don Peters, who will complete his first year in office in March.

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By Mary Hladky

It’s now official: George Brown will become city manager on Jan. 1, taking the reins from Leif Ahnell, who has held that position for 24 years.

12305297092?profile=RESIZE_180x180City Council members did not comment on the transition when they unanimously approved Brown’s employment agreement on Nov. 14.

They anointed Brown, who has served as deputy city manager since 2004, to become Ahnell’s successor in May, saying his invaluable experience and historical knowledge of the city would allow him to slide seamlessly into his new role.

At the time, Brown was expected to take over on April 1, the day after Ahnell was to retire. Ahnell entered the city’s Deferred Retirement Option Plan in 2017 and was required to retire by March 31.

But Ahnell has since moved up his departure date to Dec. 31 and will receive $143,205.17 in compensation for his earlier exit. Ever since the council tapped Brown to become city manager, Ahnell has taken a less visible role in city governance.

He has been held in high regard by council members for many years and consistently received top marks in annual job performance evaluations. A certified public accountant and certified government finance officer, Ahnell has drawn special praise for his handling of city finances, balancing the city’s growth with the council’s long-standing desire to keep a low tax rate.

Under the terms of the employment agreement, Brown will get a raise. His annual salary will be $290,000, up from $228,488. Ahnell’s salary is $318,000.

Brown also will get a $500 monthly car allowance, a city-provided cell phone and laptop computer, health and life insurance and a contribution to his retirement plan that equals 6% of his base salary each month.

Of other South Florida managers whose cities have general fund budgets similar to Boca Raton’s, Brown’s salary is nearly identical to that of West Palm Beach City Administrator Faye Johnson, according to data compiled by the city’s Human Resources Department.

The highest city manager salary in eight similar cities is $362,211 in Pembroke Pines and the lowest is $213,000 in Deerfield Beach.

Deputy Mayor Monica Mayotte first floated the idea of elevating Brown in February. Council member Marc Wigder, who was sworn into office on March 31, raised the idea again in May.

“We have a clear transition path,” he said at the time. “With Mr. Ahnell’s retirement looming, Mr. Brown is clearly ready to be our city manager.”

Other members quickly agreed, and the council abandoned plans to hire an executive recruitment firm to help find Ahnell’s successor.

Brown joined the city’s building inspection division in 1977 and rose through the ranks to become assistant city manager. He left for a five-year stint in real estate management and then to work with a nonprofit, but was recruited to return to the city both times.

He has handled many of the city’s most complex matters, including the sale of the city’s western golf course in 2021 and the lease of city land in Mizner Park last year that cleared the way for construction of the proposed Center for Arts and Innovation.

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By Mary Hladky


For years, Andrea O’Rourke exhorted fellow City Council members to place art in public spaces and establish a public art program.

Her idea finally gained traction last year when the council made an art in public places program, headed by a public art coordinator, a strategic priority.

Now that program is taking shape. Veronica Hatch, the former director of community and family programs at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, joined the city in September to be that coordinator.

12305295696?profile=RESIZE_180x180In introducing Hatch to the Federation of Boca Raton Homeowner Associations on Nov. 7, O’Rourke said she pursued her vision “like a dog with a bone” until her final council term ended in March with her as the city’s deputy mayor.

Now that Hatch is on board, “this is the dawning of a new age and I am super-excited about it,” O’Rourke said.

Boca is late to the game. More than 60 Florida cities, counties, colleges and universities have established public art programs, with Miami-Dade County taking the lead in 1973, according to the Florida Association of Public Art Professionals.

In southeast Palm Beach County, Boynton Beach, Delray Beach and Florida Atlantic University have programs.

How they are funded varies. Governments typically have paid for the programs and the art. But public-private partnerships increasingly are being used, according to Americans for the Arts.

Many private developers also are incorporating and funding public art in their projects, the organization said. One example is the Boca Raton Innovation Campus, which has art exhibits lining the walls of common areas in the former IBM headquarters building and additional art outside the building.

It will take some time before the city acquires and places art. The first step is drafting an ordinance.

Twelve city staff members from departments including recreation services, municipal services, development services and the Office of Economic Development are beginning that work now. They will also get input from city residents and public art experts, and will examine what other cities and counties already are doing.

“We are thinking about what public art can mean for the city of Boca,” Hatch said. “We are also thinking of placemaking and the spaces these works will be in.”

She hopes the ordinance will be presented to the City Council sometime next spring.

The city then must create a master plan that sets goals and identifies more specifics. Residents and experts again will be consulted.

The city will establish a public art fund that will hold money obtained from city contributions, private funding and other sources that would be used to acquire art and install it.

The city also will partner with the Boca Raton Museum of Art, other cultural organizations and universities.

The overarching goal is to make the city more vibrant, attractive and welcoming with the aim of attracting businesses and tourists that will boost the economy.

“Public art thrives on the idea of people wanting to be surrounded by wonderful opportunities to enjoy the arts and culture,” Hatch said.

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By Mary Hladky

Mill Creek Residential has abandoned its plans to build a 13-story luxury apartment project on a city block immediately south of the Brightline station.

Mill Creek’s proposal was notable as it signaled that the long anticipated redevelopment of the area, triggered by the new station, was beginning.

In its preliminary application to the city, the Boca Raton-based nationwide rental housing developer proposed 358 apartments, 6,502 square feet of retail space facing the station and 490 parking spaces. Amenities included an eighth-floor clubhouse and fitness center overlooking an outdoor elevated courtyard and a rooftop pool and sundeck.

For train passengers arriving at or leaving the station, the block between Northwest Fourth and Third Streets is their first view of the city. What they see is a car repair shop and a body shop.

“Our overall intent (is) to create an improved experience to residents and visitors to Boca Raton as they arrive on the Brightline,” the developer said in its application.

But Mill Creek withdrew its application last month, a city spokeswoman confirmed.

It also canceled sales contracts with the owners of four parcels totaling 1.4 acres that comprise most of the block, said Mike Massarella, co-owner of Boca Color Graphics on the south side of the block.

Mill Creek had asked to delay completion of the sales until the city created new zoning called a transit-oriented district in which its project would be located. But the city was slow to do so, and both Mill Creek and the property owners were frustrated, said a person familiar with the situation who asked not to be identified.

Massarella confirmed that the developer had repeatedly asked for sales contract extensions. After being under contract for a year and half, Massarella did not agree to another one, he said.

During that time, he said other potential buyers contacted him, but the sales contract tied his hands.

Mill Creek said in its application that the TOD could encompass a wider area than its project site. If that were to happen, additional developers likely would bring development proposals to the city.

Mill Creek officials did not return calls requesting comment on their decision to pull out.

Many South Florida cities wanted a Brightline station and competed with each other to get one. Boca Raton and Aventura emerged as the victors when the rail line agreed to increase the number of its stations to five from the original three in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.

Mayor Scott Singer, who lobbied Brightline aggressively, said a station would boost the city’s economy as riders hopped off the train to eat, drink, shop and visit cultural venues. It also would make the city attractive to companies that wanted rail access throughout South Florida and an alternative to traffic-clogged Interstate 95.

City leaders also anticipated that the station would lure developers to build residential units for buyers or renters who wanted to live near the station.
Brightline originally wanted to develop land around the Boca Raton station. But the company set that aside in order to speed up negotiations to reach an agreement with the city to build the station.

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By Steve Plunkett and Mary Hladky

The City Council’s decision to keep channeling property taxes into downtown redevelopment until the year 2042 may wind up creating a $60 million hole in the rest of Boca Raton’s budget.

The Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District, which has seen its share of tax increment funding (TIF) for the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency grow from about $70,000 in 1986 to $2.6 million this year, is threatening to withhold an amount equal to each future year’s TIF payment to the CRA from other city projects it funds. Palm Beach County also makes TIF payments to Boca Raton

“Something that we’re going to look at more closely is we have a lot of obligations to the city for different properties. There may be areas where we can relieve some of those obligations to make up for the loss of revenue that’s going to end up going to the downtown area,” Briann Harms, the district’s executive director, told Beach and Park District commissioners on Nov. 20.

They quickly embraced her idea.

“We’re going to have to look at options where we can divert funding from properties that we’re funding for the city now into our own, because we need the money,” Commissioner Steve Engel said.
“The city has been and it can be a very good partner to us, and I want that to continue,” said Commissioner Bob Rollins. “But we may have to look to what we’re funding and find some other ways, because we have some properties that we need to develop, and the funding that we’re paying to the CRA is certainly going to hold us back from those opportunities.”

The City Council unanimously voted to extend the district’s obligation to make annual payments until 2042 at its Nov. 14 meeting.

Ahead of the vote, Harms twice renewed her long-standing request for the district to no longer be required to make those payments and urged the city to work with the district to “find a more balanced approach.”

“This promised extension threatens to divert crucial funds away from our beaches and parks, resulting in a conservative estimate of a $60 million loss of revenue,” she said at the Nov. 13 CRA meeting. “This is not just a monetary loss, but a potential erosion of our community’s quality of life.”

She made the same plea the next night, and said that council members did not seem to be listening to her.

“The loss of these funds will impede our ability to do enhancements that we need to do to update our facilities, to expand park amenities and improve accessibility at all of our recreational buildings,” she said.

Only Mayor Scott Singer responded, saying that he did not agree with Harms’ calculation of how much money the district would lose.

At the district’s Nov. 20 meeting, Harms defended her fund loss estimate and said she didn’t get a chance to respond to Singer because she only was speaking during the public comment part of the council meeting.

“But for the sake of public clarity, the $60 million is an actual, real number,” Harms said, adding that the estimate was conservative.
“We base that on a 3% increase. I can tell you from last year to this year, our payment is at 13% higher. … So I just, I want to make it clear that this is not a characterization. It’s actually reality.”

The district’s current budget includes giving the city $2.2 million to help operate the athletic fields at De Hoernle Park and $350,900 for the Mizner Bark dog park and the Red Reef golf course.

District officials thought the CRA payments would end in 2019 when the bond for building Mizner Park was paid off. That didn’t happen.

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12281641489?profile=RESIZE_584xIf built, Milani Park would provide access to Yamato Rock, a prime snorkeling location. Photo provided

By Rich Pollack

Recognizing that just saying “No” won’t stop construction of the controversial Milani Park, Highland Beach commissioners are now planning to hire a consultant to try to convince Palm Beach County leaders that other alternatives exist.

In what appears to be an about-face from more traditional land-use arguments where residents ask for open space rather than development, town leaders say they would rather see the 5.6 vacant acres developed.

For more than 36 years, since the Milani family sold the property to the county for $4 million with the caveat that it be used as a beachfront park, town residents have been opposed to its development as a park and have been successful in delaying construction.

With county leaders committing this summer to developing as a public park the property straddling State Road A1A at the south end of town, vocal opposition among residents concerned about safety and trespassing is resurfacing.

Town commissioners say they will leave the emotional arguments to residents and instead take a more rational approach.

“We think there is a win-win solution,” said Town Manager Marshall Labadie. “There are alternatives where the county could get a better return on its investment and serve more families dealing with more pressing issues.”

The alternative town commissioners discussed the most during a meeting last month was having the county sell the property for development.

“That’s very expensive land,” Mayor Natasha Moore said. “They could sell that property and buy something less expensive that could impact many more people.”

Persuading county leaders to do that, however, could be a challenge.

Providing beach access is one of the main reasons the county wants to go ahead with development of a park in that space, since the county’s comprehensive plan requires a specific ratio of beach access countywide to population, Palm Beach County Parks and Recreation Director Jennifer Cirillo said.

As the population grows, additional beach access is needed, she said.

Under a conceptual design, the park would include parking for about 40 cars on the west side of A1A and would have a boardwalk with access to the beach on the east side of the road.

Town commissioners believe that the small amount of beach at the Milani Park site is insignificant considering the extensive amount of public beach north and south of town.

Although County Commissioner Marci Woodward, whose district includes the property, has said she is a strong supporter of building the park, Highland Beach commissioners are hoping to convince commissioners representing other districts that money from a sale of the property would have greater impact, possibly in their areas.

A consultant, commissioners say, could play a key role in getting that message — and other alternatives — across.

“We need a specialist who can come up with other arguments and facts so that we can say, ‘Look, there’s this, this and this.’ Never mind that people don’t want it,” said town Commissioner Evalyn David.

If the county were to forgo creating the park and sell the property for development, the buyer would have several hurdles to overcome.

Under the settlement agreement reached in 2010, the county would be required to offer the Milani family the opportunity to match any offer.

In addition, any development would have to be in accordance with town codes and development of the east side of the property could be hampered since it is believed to have archeological significance as a Native American burial ground.

During discussions of what strategic approach might work best, it was suggested that the town start petitions to show opposition to the park or charter buses to take residents to a County Commission meeting to voice their concerns.

However, Labadie suggested to commissioners that it is best if residents take the lead on those or similar options.

“Any success in limiting this park requires a self-driven campaign by residents,” he said.

Residents will have a chance to voice their concerns on Feb. 1 when county representatives host a public forum focused on the park.

Labadie believes they will hear a lot of opposition to the proposal.

“I have not met a single person in town who is in favor of this project,” he said.

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By Steve Plunkett

A call to the cavalry didn’t work, so people still irked by the horns on the Camino Real bridge are bringing in the heavy artillery.

State Rep. Peggy Gossett-Seidman, herself a boater, is leading the charge against the intrusive noise after an outcry a year ago by residents fell flat.

“I personally heard the horn when I was in the Atlantic Ocean entering the Boca Raton Inlet. That is just about a half a mile east,” she told the full Palm Beach County Commission on Oct. 3.

Gossett-Seidman, R-Highland Beach, has collected documents from the U.S. Coast Guard and the Florida Department of Transportation that she says clearly state that the county can impose whatever rules it wants on when to sound the horns.

“The decision to set the bridge horn belongs to [County Engineer David] Ricks and county engineering alone. No state statute exists that requires the bridge horn schedule set as every 20 minutes 24/7 and audible from the Boca Raton ocean inlet,” she wrote in an email to County Administrator Verdenia Baker.

The aggrieved neighbors include property owners in the Royal Palm Improvement District and guests of the “newly reimagined” The Boca Raton.

“While we understand the alarm is necessary for the safety of pedestrians and boaters, we would appreciate it if the decibel level could be lowered as the alarm causes a distraction to our Pool Club and restaurant guests,” Daniel Hostettler, the luxury resort’s president and CEO, said in a letter to Gossett-Seidman.

Hostettler’s complaint got the county officials’ attention.

“That bridge has been there, our procedure has been there, so I’m a little surprised that the Boca resort is now complaining about it,” Baker said. She assured her bosses that her staff would order a feasibility study from consultants and investigate the situation anew.

Gossett-Seidman estimates that the horns, which are triggered every 20 minutes when the bridge is raised, disrupt the peace of 3,000 to 5,000 of her constituents. A county report puts the bridge horns’ sound level at 107 decibels, comparable to the top volume of a train horn. Complaints about the horns’ noise surfaced in 2022 after decades of non-use, neighbors say. County officials had no answer for why the horns were not used before.

Commissioner Marci Woodward, whose district covers the southeast part of the county, has arranged meetings with Gossett-Seidman, Baker and other county officials.

“We don’t have a hard policy. We’ve been following FDOT and Coast Guard regulations. It’s not actually something that we’ve adopted as a board,” Woodward told her colleagues.

She also said staff had compiled numbers showing the bridge blasts its horns only once or twice a night, which relieved Commissioner Sara Baxter.

“I do think people get a little angry if they can’t sleep,” Baxter said.

That the matter is being discussed by the County Commission is a step farther than neighbors got last year. At that time, they contacted then-Commissioner Robert Weinroth, whose staff was rebuffed by lower county officials saying they had to follow Coast Guard and FDOT standards.

But this time, Gossett-Seidman has correspondence from the Coast Guard and FDOT that says otherwise.

“If an accommodation can be made to address local resident concerns about the operation of the horn at the Camino Real bridge, then the county would be the most appropriate entity to address those concerns since they own, operate, and maintain the referenced bridge,” wrote Kelley Hall, the FDOT district’s structures maintenance engineer.

And Jennifer Zercher with the Coast Guard’s Miami office said federal regulations require only that bridges sound a horn as a fog warning or to answer a boater’s horn signal.

“The Coast Guard does not have the authority to require a sound signal [horn] if not specifically for responding to a signal for an opening or a fog signal for reduced visibility,” Zercher wrote. 

Residents are cautiously encouraged by Gossett-Seidman’s efforts.

“She’s doing a great job, but these bridge people are doing their best to not talk about it. They just keep sidetracking her. They’re so vehemently against changing it,” said Tom Tyghem, who lives two doors south of the bridge and has personally spent “several thousand dollars” for a lawyer to pursue the noise complaint.

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By Rich Pollack

Richard Nixon was in the White House, American soldiers were in Vietnam and the first man was about to walk on the moon just about the same time that many of the sewer pipes buried under the streets of Highland Beach were being installed.

Now more than half a century later, those original pipes, as well as others installed soon after, are starting to outlive their design life.

Rather than replace them, however, town leaders hope they will get the green light from residents to spend up to $3.5 million to line the sewer mains throughout the community.

“This needs to happen,” Commissioner Evalyn David said during a meeting last month in which commissioners agreed to bring the issue to voters in a March referendum.

While the town has been diligent in making sure older water pipes were replaced and kept in good shape, sewer lines didn’t receive as much attention over the years, said Town Manager Marshall Labadie.

“We just have not gotten to the sewer lines,” he said. “It’s been out of sight and out of mind.”

Now as the pipes start to show their age, the proposed Sanitary Sewer Rehabilitation project becomes a high priority, according to town leaders.

“If we don’t do it, we’re going to be spending four times as much and it will be extremely disruptive,” Labadie said.

To determine the condition of the pipes, the town authorized a study that was conducted several months ago in which cameras were sent through the sewer mains. They revealed signs of aging that could mean repairs would be needed within a few years.

The cameras also showed that it’s likely some ground water could be seeping into the lines, driving up the town’s cost of treatment, and that some water from inside the pipes could be leaking into the ground.

To head off having to make costly emergency repairs, the town explored the possibility of lining the pipes, hiring an engineering firm that has developed plans for the project.

All that is standing in the way is a spending cap that requires the town to get voter approval for any project over $350,000.

Commissioners are also considering whether to ask voters to increase that spending cap to $900,000 each year with an additional annual cost-of-living increase, but a referendum would still be needed for the sewer lining project due to its $3.5 million price tag.

Labadie said that if voters approve the project in March, work could begin quickly because much of the preliminary work has been completed.

Lining the pipes, mostly 8- to-10-inch mains, is most cost-effective and less intrusive than replacing pipes, Labadie said, and will extend the useful life for several decades.

With sewer-pipe lining projects, crews inject an epoxy-saturated tubing into the existing pipe, inflate it and then set it with heat or steam. The work is done at manholes so little, if any, tearing up of roadway is needed.

If residents approve funding for the project, the town will have several financing options including floating bonds, taking out loans or tapping into reserves.

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By Mary Hladky

Four years after the Boca Raton City Council gave up on having a transit system in the downtown, current council members are pushing to get an on-demand service in place quickly.

City officials will request proposals from interested companies early this month, with the goal of selecting one and awarding a contract in January. Council members added $500,000 to the current fiscal year’s budget to get the ball rolling.

The city previously had free electric vehicle transportation in the downtown — most notably with the Downtowner — but companies were unable to make enough money with advertising on their vehicles to continue service. The City Council would not subsidize it.

This time around, the council is willing to provide funding. But members hope that they can persuade the Town Center mall, Florida Atlantic University and others to help pay the cost. State and federal transportation grant money is another potential funding source.

“I do think this is something we need in the city,” council member Yvette Drucker said this summer.

Brightline train service to the city has made the matter more urgent.

Council members have said repeatedly that they want to give passengers a reason to get off the train and patronize Boca Raton’s restaurants, stores, parks and cultural attractions.

Free or low-cost transportation from the station to these destinations could help that happen.

At Drucker’s invitation, three companies — Freebee, Circuit and Via Transportation— made presentations to the council in July and September. Brightline already uses Circuit to ferry its passengers to Mizner Park at no cost.

All three, which operate in many Florida cities, said they could tailor their services to whatever the city wants. How much they charge will depend on the size of the service area and what the city asks for.

All offer electric vehicles and an app that customers use to book a ride. Some cities provide the service free to their residents, but many charge a fee of about $2 per ride. Boca council members have not yet decided if there will be a charge.

The request for proposals specifies that all trips must begin or end in the downtown area, defined as the boundaries of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency. It would include the Brightline station, Downtown Library, and Wildflower and Silver Palm parks.

The service area would run from Glades Road to the south city limits, and east of Interstate 95 to 5th Avenue/Royal Palm Way.

Destinations might also include the Tri-Rail station west of I-95 and south of Yamato Road, Spanish River Library, FAU, Town Center mall, Gumbo Limbo Nature Center and Red Reef, South Beach, South Inlet, Sugar Sand and Patch Reef parks.

The maximum wait time for a ride would be 10 minutes. Service hours would be 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday.

The companies must provide a customer app that can confirm the ride and estimated wait time. They also will be required to provide data so the city can ascertain the service’s viability and if the service area should be expanded.

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12281607669?profile=RESIZE_710xPlans for the Boca Raton Innovation Campus at the former IBM site, west of Interstate 95 on the south side of Yamato Road, include 1,240 residential units, an entertainment venue, a hotel, grocery and more. Rendering provided

 

By Mary Hladky

CP Group’s ambitious plan to create a $1 billion live-work-play development that would attract major technology and life sciences companies to its Boca Raton Innovation Campus got a significant boost on Oct. 11 when the City Council approved zoning code changes that allow the company to re-envision the 124-acre site.

CP Group acquired the former IBM headquarters in 2018, rechristened it as BRIC, and has since spent about $100 million upgrading the iconic 1.7 million-square-foot building to meet current corporate expectations.

Now it wants to add 1,240 residential units, an entertainment venue, retail and restaurants, a hotel, grocery and more — uses that are not now allowed — to enhance BRIC’s appeal to companies and their employees who want live and recreate near where they work.

For the past two years, CP Group’s managing partner, Angelo Bianco, and his team have pressed city officials to move quickly so that Boca Raton does not lose out to other Florida cities that also are luring companies that are fleeing high-tax states.

“Tech companies are on the move now,” CP Group’s attorney Bonnie Miskel told the City Council in 2021. “I want to provide you with a sense of urgency.”

Bianco reinforced that point when speaking to the city’s Planning and Zoning Board in May.

“I know we need this for the future of Boca Raton,” he said. “If we don’t, we will continue to fall behind. It is an arms race in a sense, and we are losing.”

After a flurry of last-minute negotiations last month, the City Council unanimously approved a new kind of development called “enhanced mobility” that allows what BRIC wants to build, as well as fitness centers, bars and nightclubs, business and medical offices, child and adult care centers, museums, conference centers and schools.

Properties eligible for development as an EMD must be at least 100 acres. Residential density will be limited to a maximum of 10 units per acre and building height to 85 feet.

An EMD must be located within one-half mile of the Tri-Rail station that is south of Yamato Road and immediately east of BRIC. EMDs are to be designed to encourage the use of mass transit and bicycles so people living and working in one can largely forgo driving cars.

“This is an opportunity to create a real mixed-use district and take advantage of what is a landmark and milestone (IBM) building and still the largest single office building in all of South Florida,” Mayor Scott Singer said after the vote to create the EMD.

He also noted that BRIC now will be better able to attract new corporate tenants, while also offering retail and services to people who live near BRIC.

Council members Yvette Drucker and Fran Nachlas were pleased that the project will provide the city with additional housing. Asked by Nachlas if he would consider adding affordable housing units, Bianco nodded yes.

“It will allow us to change BRIC from an office-only project to a mixed-use project which is what you need to do today to add value to office space, as well as residential and retail,” Bianco said after the meeting.

While approval of the EMD is a milestone for CP Group, its development plans still need to go through the city approval process. That will begin with the group’s submission of a development master plan.

CP Group has already shown the City Council and Planning and Zoning Board renderings of the project, but those are conceptual plans. If the master plan is approved, Bianco said his team will complete the actual project design and will determine the sequence of the project’s phases.

If all goes smoothly, Bianco said construction would start in 2025.

The conceptual plans show the new buildings clustered around the existing office building. A “Main Street” with retail stores would be located on the north side of the site, south of Yamato Road.

The entertainment venue could be similar to Hard Rock Live in Hollywood. CP Group has said it would not compete with the Center for Arts and Innovation that is planned for Mizner Park.

CP Group’s plans for BRIC echo the Midtown development it proposed near the Town Center mall, an equally ambitious $1 billion live-work-play project that would have been located next to a new Tri-Rail station.

The City Council torpedoed that office, retail and residential development, prompting CP Group to file three ultimately unsuccessful lawsuits against the city. But the company quickly moved on, acquiring the IBM headquarters for about $179 million.

In another matter also intended to boost economic development in the employment-heavy section of the city that includes BRIC, the City Council unanimously approved changes for the Park at Broken Sound, formerly known as the Arvida Park of Commerce, which is north of BRIC.

Park at Broken Sound landowners have pushed for a zoning code change that would remove existing restrictions to the type of office uses allowed.

A much wider range of offices, including medical offices, will now be permitted. The change will create incentives for the construction of new office buildings or the expansion of existing buildings.

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By Mary Hladky

Long dormant plans to build a new government campus and a pedestrian bridge that Brightline passengers could use to reach the downtown have been revived by the Boca Raton City Council.

Council members added $300,000 to this fiscal year’s city budget that would be used to hire consultants to start planning both projects.

The council first started that process years ago to replace the old, outdated and deteriorating city hall, police department and community center. Consultant Song + Associates submitted two options in 2019 for a new government hub on the 30-acre, city-owned site on West Palmetto Park Road.

But the projected $200 million price tag stunned council members, who said they wanted to find ways to trim the cost. The start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 brought the project to a halt.

Since then, the buildings’ conditions have worsened, requiring the city to spend money on costly repairs.

Mayor Scott Singer and City Manager Leif Ahnell have suggested that developers now may be interested in helping finance the project since the city land is located near the Brightline station.

Similarly, the idea for a Brightline passenger bridge is now back on the table.

When city and Brightline officials were negotiating to bring a station to Boca Raton, Brightline wanted the city to build a pedestrian bridge over Dixie and Federal highways so that people could safely walk between the station and downtown while being protected from the elements.

City officials calculated the cost at between $7 million and $12 million, much more than they wanted to spend. So they opted instead to improve the walkways to downtown on Northwest First Avenue and Northwest and Northeast Second Street at a cost of $3.3 million.

With the Brightline station now a reality, council sentiment has changed. Singer described the bridge as “vital.”

But the cost is unknown. Council members noted that Brightline is now building a pedestrian bridge at its Aventura station to give passengers easy access to the Aventura Mall.

They have heard that bridge will be very costly.

Brightline selected a contractor to do the work and expected to have a finalized contract with that company in October, the rail line said in an August construction report.

Brightline representatives did not respond to queries from The Coastal Star about the bridge’s cost.

Even if the city does not copy the Aventura bridge, “we know it will be an expensive endeavor,” said Deputy Mayor Monica Mayotte.

In another downtown matter, the council has approved a new long-term lease of city-owned land to the Boca Raton Historical Society.

The city’s historic town hall at 71 N. Federal Highway houses the Schmidt Boca Raton History Museum.

The 30-year lease at $1 per year includes a renewal option for another 20-year term.

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12281602674?profile=RESIZE_710xWalker Design & Construction Co. workers level a portion of the more than 100 cubic yards of concrete foundation that was poured Oct. 11 for bases of a multi-level ramp that will lead to a new observation tower. The ramp will make the top deck accessible to people in wheelchairs, using walkers or with other disabilities. The old tower was removed in 2015 after it and the adjoining boardwalk were declared unsafe. The 40-foot-high pilings, at rear, were installed in 2019. Tax money from the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District will pay for the bulk of the $2.4 million project, which will open next spring. Stephen Kosowsky and Sharilyn Jones of Boca Raton pledged $250,000 in return for naming the tower after their son, Jacob, who died in a car accident in 2018. Jacob’s grandparents donated $100,000 and the Gumbo Limbo Coastal Stewards collected more than $150,000 in a ‘Save the Tower’ campaign. Jacob’s Outlook will feature a plaque honoring Jacob. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

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