FAU College of Medicine benefactor Ann Wood and previous Wood scholarship recipients attend a May event announcing a $28 million gift from Ann and her husband, John, the largest scholarship gift in FAU history. One current recipient is Ivan Grela, fourth from left, a second-year medical student. Photo provided
Couple pledges $28 million for FAU scholarships
By Mary Hladky
Ivan Grela’s career goal is to become a physician, but he faced a major hurdle. By his calculations, four years of medical school would cost him $245,000.
“That is way too much,” he said. “My family could not help me with tuition or rent.”
That left him with one unpalatable option: take out loans that would saddle him with debt for years to come.
“I was disheartened,” said Grela, a University of Florida graduate who was born in Argentina and moved with his family to Miami when he was 9 years old. “I really didn’t want to do this. It did make me think twice.”
Even so, he applied to medical schools and was accepted by both the University of Central Florida and Florida Atlantic University.
UCF offered a $6,000 scholarship. FAU, his preferred choice, offered him one established by Boca Raton philanthropists John and Ann Wood that covered his entire first-year tuition and provided $10,000 for each of the next three years.
That decided the matter: Grela would be attending FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine, where he is now in his second year.
He and the other students who received the scholarships are “extremely thankful,” Grela said. “We are so much more relieved that at least we got some sort of aid.”
Even so, Grela estimates he will graduate with $180,000 in loan debt.
His problem is widely shared. Seventy-three percent of medical school graduates had debt, with the median amount at $200,000 in 2019, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
John and Ann Wood are well aware of this dilemma. That is why they stepped forward again in May with a $28 million estate pledge to support scholarships for medical college students — the largest scholarship gift in FAU’s history.
This gift allows the college to launch an initiative to move toward providing a debt-free medical education, following in the footsteps of a handful of prestigious medical colleges. They include Cornell University, Columbia University, University of California, Los Angeles, and New York University.
“That was our goal,” John Wood said. “We are fully aware of the debt load.”
Wood, who moved with his wife to Boca Raton in 1983, knows that FAU’s annual medical college in-state tuition and fees is $35,000.
“There is no way an ordinary kid coming from a middle-class home can afford that,” he said.
The couple, who owned a prestressed concrete business that built bridges, piers and cruise ship terminals throughout the Caribbean that they sold in 2005, hopes that news of their gift will inspire other philanthropists so that all of FAU’s medical college students can graduate debt-free.
“We are hoping that will be a catalyst to get more people in the community to do the same thing,” Wood said.
The couple has helped students for years. After the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that claimed 17 lives, they began providing 10 four-year scholarships each year to graduates.
Their first gift to FAU’s medical college in 2021 originally supported 10 medical students through four years of medical school, and was expanded earlier this year to support an additional 20 students each year.
Two of their charitable efforts are named in the memory of their sons, Bruce and Robert.
While the amount of the Woods’ latest gift is extremely generous, it will help about 10% to 15% of FAU’s medical students, said Dr. Julie Pilitsis, dean and vice president for medical affairs.
She shares the Woods’ goal that the donation inspires others to join the cause.
“We hope the community rallies behind this to realize the vision of doctors without debt,” she said.
This isn’t just about helping students afford medical education. It is vital to providing adequate medical care to South Florida residents, Pilitsis said. Florida is expected to be short nearly 18,000 physicians by 2035, according to the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida and the Florida Hospital Association.
“It is really important … we provide the health care workforce we need today and tomorrow,” she said. “In order to do that, we need to attract doctors from the community who want to stay in the community and serve their neighbors.”
With debt-free tuition, “I think we can attract the best and brightest and retain our local talent,” Pilitsis said. “Taking this burden off is one way to compete.”
Joining other trailblazing universities “would really elevate our institution,” she said.
Reducing the cost of medical education also will help FAU attract a diverse group of medical students who are more likely to meet the needs of underserved populations. And it relieves pressure on students to become highly paid specialists rather than badly needed but lower paid primary care physicians.
Grela hasn’t decided yet what type of medicine he will practice. But he said he probably would choose primary care or emergency medicine if he didn’t have to worry about money.
Since he does, “this makes me reconsider which field I want to go into. I am concerned with the loans piling up, interest rates, how long it will take me to pay this off,” he said.
As it aims for debt-free medical education, FAU’s medical college, launched in 2010, already is able to point to successes in diversifying its student body and aligning graduates with the most-needed practice areas.
The 64 members of the class of 2022 are 46% female and 54% male; 20% are underrepresented minorities in medicine. Twenty will specialize in primary care, including family medicine, internal medicine and pediatrics.
About 30% of FAU’s 2022 medical college graduates will conduct their residencies in Florida, and 50% of those residency graduates will stay in the state, Pilitsis said.
By Rich Pollack
Highland Beach residents likely will see a slight drop in the municipal tax rate this year even as the town incurs more than $700,000 in start-up expenses as it moves to create its own fire department.
During a June 21 special meeting of the Town Commission, Town Manager Marshall Labadie unveiled a $14 million general fund budget for 2022-23 that is an increase of $832,000 or 6% over the current budget.
If there are no major changes to the proposed budget, the town’s total tax rate will dip from $3.62 per $1,000 of assessed value to $3.59 per $1,000 of assessed value, due solely to a reduction in the debt service rate.
“We’re financially positioned to remain strong here in Highland Beach,” Labadie said. “We’re going to hold our operating tax rate flat while we reduce our debt service tax rate while working to enhance our three miles of paradise.”
This will be the fourth consecutive year the town has levied $3.23 per $1,000 for its general fund rate. Labadie said that Highland Beach will continue to have one of the lowest tax rates in Palm Beach County as well as in the state.
While the rate will be dropping, that might not translate to lower taxes for most residents largely because property values increased significantly.
Overall, Highland Beach saw a 13.8% increase in values, from $2.7 billion to just over $3 billion, according to the county property appraiser.
That increase is expected to generate about $10.5 million in tax revenue for the town — about $909,000 or 9.5% more than was received this fiscal year. In Highland Beach, property taxes are almost three-fourths of general fund revenue.
To keep the operating tax rate flat, the town is pledging about $375,000 from reserves, most of which will be used to offset the impending costs of starting a fire department.
Should that money be taken from reserves, the town would still have almost $10 million in reserves with $3.62 million still earmarked to offset charges associated with implementing a fire department.
The town, which has been receiving fire and rescue services from Delray Beach for decades, will not begin operating its own department until May 2024 but will incur start-up costs in the next fiscal year while continuing to pay Delray Beach for service.
In all, Highland Beach will be spending more than $6 million for fire rescue service in the next fiscal year, the town’s largest single expense.
Payment to Delray Beach of about $5.35 million — an increase of about 4% over the current fiscal year — accounts for the bulk of the cost, but the town will also spend money on salary and benefits for a new fire chief and on a new rescue vehicle in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
Also in the additional fire expenses are costs associated with designing a new station that will accommodate an additional rescue vehicle and fire truck.
As the planning for a fire department continues, the town has created a new shared support services department, which will track services provided between departments and funds.
In addition to the fire chief, the town will add an assistant town manager, a management analyst and a custodian to its staff.
“We’re taking all these steps during unsettled economic conditions,” Labadie said.
Overall, salaries and related expenses will represent about 37% of the town’s budget. Labadie also anticipates providing non-union employees with a 5% cost-of-living increase and is exploring a one-time employee payment to address the cost of inflation and other external economic factors.
Commissioners and members of the town’s Financial Advisory Board will continue to review the budget throughout the summer, with the town setting its tentative maximum tax rate on July 19. A public hearing will be held in September, before the budget is finalized Sept. 21.
Plans for a new cultural arts center at Mizner Park are next likely to come before the City Council at its July 26 meeting, with a decisive vote to follow Aug. 23. The city and the development group have agreed on the parameters of a deal. Rendering provided
By Mary Hladky
A proposed cultural arts complex in Mizner Park took another big step toward becoming reality on June 23 when Boca Raton’s Planning and Zoning Board voted to recommend that the City Council approve the project.
With two members absent, the board voted 4-1 in favor, with Chair Arnold Sevell dissenting.
City Council members are expected to take up the matter at their July 26 meeting and cast their decisive vote on Aug. 23. It’s all but certain that council members, who deeply desire to have a cultural showplace in the heart of downtown, will approve the deal between the city and the Boca Raton Arts District Exploratory Corp.
The $130 million complex to be built on city-owned land on the north end of Mizner Park will include a performing arts center whose venues can accommodate 6,000 people, completely renovated amphitheater, jewel box theater, rooftop terrace and outdoor performing arts spaces.
If built, the complex will fulfill a long-held vision to transform Mizner Park into the city’s cultural center.
Sevell questioned whether BRADEC, a consortium of local arts organizations, had the necessary experience to bring the project to fruition and whether it could raise enough money.
The city is not contributing funding. BRADEC plans to finance the entire cost with donations from cultural arts supporters and corporations that have long wanted such a facility in the city.
BRADEC President Andrea Virgin tried to reassure the board on both points.
The nonprofit’s consultant is DeVos Institute of Arts Management, which has extensive experience guiding the development of cultural centers. DeVos has conducted feasibility studies that determined the appropriate complex size and that BRADEC would be able finance it.
“We had some of the best consultants in the world working with us on this,” Virgin said. “I assure you we have a very competitive team with worldwide experience.”
Further, greater Boca Raton has a very large philanthropic community eager for such a complex, she said. Their numbers have grown since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Thanks to COVID, we have been the recipient of a tremendous number of high net worth individuals that have moved to this area that not only desire this … they demand it,” she said.
“It is even more feasible now because of the tremendous desire of the people in South Florida to see this type of vibrancy and culture in the place they now call home.”
Under terms of the deal hammered out between the city and BRADEC, the length of BRADEC’s lease of the city-owned land will be 74 years with two 10-year extensions. The lease term is a compromise between the city’s desire for a 50-year lease and BRADEC’s for a 99-year lease.
BRADEC must have at least $75 million in cash, or a loan that cannot exceed 50% of the construction cost, to start the project. It also must have reserve and endowment funds totaling nearly $22 million in cash. It has 11 years to complete the project, but Virgin has repeatedly said the doors will open sooner than that. The city can terminate the deal if BRADEC is unable to raise enough money.
By Rich Pollack
The impact of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to veto more than $3 billion of projects and programs before signing a $109.9 billion state budget into law in June is being felt in Highland Beach, where the ax fell on three funding requests.
There may still be hope for the town’s chances of getting funding for at least two of the projects, however, thanks to a new grant program funded by the Florida House of Representatives.
As DeSantis trimmed the massive state budget last month, Highland Beach’s requests for $700,000 toward drainage improvements along State Road A1A, $400,000 for help funding a new fire station and $60,000 for crosswalk lighting were eliminated.
“We were all surprised,” said Commissioner Peggy Gossett-Seidman, who led the commission’s effort to secure the appropriations. “We really thought we had a shot.”
Although it is uncertain why Highland Beach’s requests were turned down, state Rep. Mike Caruso (R-Delray Beach) and Gossett-Seidman believe the town’s strong tax base combined with the governor’s decision not to fund fire station projects may have sparked the specific vetoes.
“Those communities that emerged healthy financially, they may have been considered well positioned to move forward without an appropriation,” said Gossett-Seidman, who is running as a Republican for House District 91.
She and Caruso pointed out that funding for fire house improvements in other municipalities — including the town of Palm Beach — were also vetoed by the governor.
DeSantis and his staff, Gossett-Seidman said, may see a need for those types of capital projects to be funded by municipalities.
Caruso said he is now working with the town on applications for the House’s 2022 local support grants program, which includes $175 million to be distributed to municipalities.
The decision on whether Highland Beach gets the funding bypasses the governor’s office as well as the state Senate and is up to House leadership.
Caruso said he and Gossett-Seidman will apply for money to help with two of the projects — construction of the fire station and drainage along A1A — and believes chances are good for approval.
“Highland Beach hasn’t had an appropriation in 72 years, its entire existence,” he said. “I’m encouraged by the new grants and confident we’ll bring at least one project home.”
Caruso said he’s not planning to ask for the $60,000 for embedded crosswalk lighting that was in the original appropriations request. But Town Manager Marshall Labadie said Highland Beach could ask again and perhaps have the project done when the Florida Department of Transportation resurfaces A1A.
That project is scheduled for summer 2024.
With looming retirements, Boca Raton is on the verge of a wholesale change in its top leadership.
Deputy City Manager Mike Woika will end his 22-year career with the city this summer. Deputy City Manager George Brown, a 45-year city employee, will leave by the end of this year. And City Manager Leif Ahnell, who has held Boca Raton’s top position for 23 years, will depart in 2024.
Andy Lukasik, North Palm Beach village manager since 2017 who previously served as Jupiter’s town manager for 13 years, will replace Woika on July 25.
Lukasik said he wasn’t actively looking for a new position, but by chance saw that Boca Raton was conducting an applicant search.
“The opportunity to work in Boca, given the complexity of the issues and projects they are working on, was really intriguing,” he said. He had worked on complex projects in Jupiter and missed that when he joined much smaller North Palm Beach.
Both the city and Ahnell have a great reputation, he said. “I couldn’t pass up the opportunity with Boca.”
The salary range for deputy city manager is $175,000 to $195,000. A recruiting firm aided the city in its search for candidates.
A recruiting firm also will help identify a replacement for Ahnell, in a process that potentially could start in the fall of 2023, Ahnell said at the City Council’s May 31-June 1 goal-setting sessions.
Ahnell has been held in high regard by council members for many years. He consistently receives top marks in annual evaluations for how he runs the city.
The departures were on the minds of council members as they set priorities for the coming year, with several saying they needed to start succession planning.
With the retirements, “we are having brain drain,” Mayor Scott Singer said. “We need to plan for that now.”
The city manager selects his top lieutenants, but the City Council makes the final call on who will serve as city manager.
For that reason, it is important that the council be involved in the process early on and identify what experience and capabilities they are looking for in whoever replaces Ahnell, Singer said.
The departures come at a time when Boca Raton and other cities are having difficulties in hiring and retaining city workers.
City government pay falls behind what the private sector is offering, and the strong employment market affords attractive opportunities to move into new jobs. Workers also are less inclined now to stay in the same job long-term.
Even so, Boca Raton is faring better than many other cities in retaining employees, according to a report distributed to council members before the goal-setting sessions.
The city’s employee turnover rate is about 10%, well below the local government average, the report said. In 2021, the city received almost 15,000 job applications and hired 103 full-time and 158 part-time employees. The city has just over 1,900 employees.
By Mary Hladky
The City Council has given a formal go-ahead to hire a consulting firm that will create a vision for a reimagined five-block stretch of East Palmetto Park Road from Federal Highway to Fifth Avenue.
At a June 13 workshop, the council approved a staff proposal for the scope of the work for which the consultant will be responsible. The city will seek a firm with urban planning, engineering and architectural expertise that is capable of handling a complex project.
Deputy City Manager Mike Woika estimated it could take four to six months to select the consultant and that the project could take several years to complete.
The firm’s work will include projecting future traffic patterns, volume and speeds and pedestrian patterns and volumes; providing recommendations for mitigating pedestrian/vehicle conflicts; recommending revisions to current urban design regulations; providing parking analysis and recommendations; designing the corridor, and managing construction projects.
The consultant also will be responsible for studying evacuation options for barrier island residents and access to and from the island by fire-rescue units.
City staff was responding to Deputy Mayor Andrea O’Rourke’s campaign to improve the five blocks, which was supported by her fellow council members in May.
Work also is progressing, albeit slowly, on improving the section of Palmetto Park Road from the Intracoastal Waterway to State Road A1A.
Katie Barr MacDougall, president of the Riviera Civic Association, asked the council for changes more than one year ago that included better walkability, the addition of bicycle lanes and safety improvements that included crosswalks.
She pressed her case again at a June 1 council goal-setting session, which prompted O’Rourke to ask city staff for a project update.
Since the county owns that section of the road, the city can’t act on its own. It has been coordinating with the county, said Municipal Services Director Zachary Bihr. The county should be able to start improvements this summer that will eliminate some of the on-street parking on both the north and south sides of the roadway.
With the extra space that makes available, sidewalks on the south side that now are very narrow because Florida Power & Light poles jut out will be widened. The elimination of spaces also will improve visibility for drivers.
A decision on whether more crosswalks can be added for pedestrian safety should also be coming soon, Bihr said. Barr MacDougall had proposed installing them at Olive Way and Wavecrest Way.
The city has not been dragging its feet, City Manager Leif Ahnell said. The slow progress is the result of the need to coordinate with the county, whose priorities can differ from the city’s.
Working with the county “takes a lot of time,” he said. “There is a lot that has been going on behind the scenes.”
He offered as an example plans to add crosswalks with flashing lights along A1A, which he said would be installed by the end of this year.
That road is controlled by the state, which must approve any changes, and originally the Florida Department of Transportation said it could study the idea “in a couple of years,” Ahnell said. That would have meant crosswalks could be installed in 2025.
Not wanting to wait that long, the city negotiated with the state to take over the project. The 11 crosswalks along A1A between Highland Beach and Deerfield Beach will be installed by the end of 2022, Ahnell said.
“It took a year just to get all that figured out with another jurisdiction,” he said.
In other business, the council on June 14 voted 4-0, with O’Rourke abstaining, to reimburse her $1,625 that she spent on an attorney after an ethics complaint was filed against her.
Boca Raton resident Dario Gristina filed the complaint, contending that O’Rourke had acted improperly when she endorsed candidates in last year’s city election.
The Florida Commission on Ethics found that she had done nothing illegal or improper and that Gristina’s complaint was “legally insufficient.”
Florida law allows elected officials to be reimbursed for legal defense costs that arise out of their performance of official duties when they are found innocent or there is a finding of legal insufficiency.
The walls and roof were added to Brightline’s Boca Raton station in June as construction continued next to the Downtown Library. Crews were also reconstructing the train crossing on Northwest Second Street, a project scheduled to be finished on July 8. Groundbreaking for the $46 million station and its parking garage was in January, and it is expected to open to passengers in December. The 1.8-acre site is across the railroad tracks from Mizner Park. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
By Steve Plunkett
Construction prices more than double what was expected have forced the city and the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District to delay plans to rebuild the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center observation tower and refurbish Lake Wyman and Rutherford parks.
The bid for the work at Lake Wyman and neighboring Rutherford came in at about $15.5 million, city civil engineer Lauren Burack said. City staff had budgeted $5.6 million, with $2.6 million of it coming in grants.
Burack told City Council members at a June 13 workshop that the “excessive” price was “primarily due to the boardwalk cost, the number of pavilions and the additional shade structures and pier cost.” The price of lumber for boardwalks was $2,000 per linear foot, more than double what the city historically has paid, she said.
City Manager Leif Ahnell said the lumber prices have “come down significantly” in the past couple of months and recommended that council members wait and rebid the project.
“We expect further declines over the next several months as well,” Ahnell said. “We think we can find a better price at the end of the year.”
Burack also gave council members two options to lower the cost. Demolishing the existing boardwalk rather than renovating it and deleting walking trails on the north and south sides of the parks would save $4 million, she said. Omitting another section of boardwalk and not building new restrooms and the observation pier would trim another $4 million.
Either option would still leave restoration of the silted-in canoe trail, installation of two kayak launch sites and a boardwalk connecting them to the parking lot, removal of invasive vegetation, native planting and mangrove planting and trimming.
The parks are adjacent to each other on the west side of the Intracoastal Waterway near Northeast 20th Street.
In 2012 the city rejected a plan put together by former Mayor and then-County Commissioner Steven Abrams that would have restored Rutherford Park’s canoe trail, extended its boardwalk and created a sea grass basin on the large spoil island just east of Lake Wyman Park.
That project would have been funded by a $2.1 million grant from the Florida Inland Navigation District and $450,000 from Palm Beach County, with the city and the Beach and Park District each chipping in $225,000.
The city was tempted by the outside money but ultimately did not want to cede control of the project to others.
In 2016, the city drew up a $6.5 million plan that included two double boat ramps in Rutherford Park and no money from FIND. That plan was dropped in favor of the current configuration.
Regarding the Gumbo Limbo tower, Beach and Park District commissioners also decided to wait to rebid the project after the city advised that before it could rebid, the district would have to budget the full $2.6 million of the previous bid. The district had expected the bid to be $1.2 million.
Commissioner Steve Engel was pessimistic about the cost changing much.
“Prices very rarely come down when it comes to capital projects, whether it’s the city or us or anyone else. This is a fact of life,” he said.
District Chair Erin Wright said rebidding the project now would not be smart.
“If we go into a recession, we don’t want to be putting $2.6 million into a tower. That’s just not the No. 1 priority on our list of projects,” she said.
Commissioners decided to leave the tower out of their next year’s budget and amend the budget to accommodate rebidding if prices do come down.
They also returned to the Gumbo Limbo Coastal Stewards, the new name of the Friends of Gumbo Limbo, the $250,000 private donation that started the push for the tower in 2019. The Coastal Stewards also raised $263,000 to more than match the first gift.
In other business, commissioners congratulated Bob Rollins and Susan Vogelgesang for being elected to new four-year terms. Nobody filed to challenge either incumbent.
A FedEx driver leaves his truck along East Palmetto Park Road in Boca Raton as he delivers a package to a business. The city plans to redesign the road from Federal Highway to Fifth Avenue for better function. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
By Mary Hladky
Boca Raton City Council members have voiced their support for Deputy Mayor Andrea O’Rourke’s campaign to improve a five-block section of East Palmetto Park Road.
After O’Rourke made a presentation at a May 9 meeting, her fellow council members backed her request to hire an urban planning consultant to evaluate the street span from Federal Highway to Northeast/Southeast Fifth Avenue and create a new street design.
But much remains up in the air. O’Rourke and other council members did not suggest specific changes and left it to City Manager Leif Ahnell to determine which consultant to hire and to specify the scope of the consultant’s work. Council members will review and potentially revise his plan.
But based on council member comments, the review could include pedestrian safety, controlling vehicle speeds and avoiding changes that would make it more difficult for barrier island residents to get to and from downtown.
Also still to be resolved is how to pay for the consultant and construction.
Downtown street improvements have long been a priority for O’Rourke. At last year’s City Council goal-setting session, other council members rejected her proposal to prioritize making street changes throughout the downtown. But they did agree to prioritize improvements to another section of Palmetto Park Road, east of the Intracoastal Waterway.
Since then, O’Rourke and land use attorney Ele Zachariades formed an ad hoc group that included prominent architects, engineers and a Florida Atlantic University urban planning professor to tackle how the five-block area west of the Intracoastal could be transformed.
The group held a visioning session on March 24 to gather input from city residents, who backed changes that included wider sidewalks, more shade trees and the addition of bicycle lanes and crosswalks, while eliminating on-street parking.
A second visioning session was planned in advance of this year’s goal-setting session on May 31-June 1. Instead, O’Rourke took her case directly to the City Council, asking for the consultant and a council-approved list of requirements the consultant would have to take into account.
Noting that this is her last year on the City Council because she is term-limited, O’Rourke said she wanted to get the project underway before she leaves office.
“I would just really like to see us finish what we started,” she said, referring to unrealized plans in 1982 and 2007 to create a new vision for downtown. “Complete the vision. Complete the dream and make this happen.”
People and companies are moving to South Florida, she noted. To compete with other cities trying to attract them, Boca Raton needs to provide a vibrant downtown that offers more than it does now, she said.
While she would prefer a more comprehensive revisioning, O’Rourke said her proposal is a good first step.
Her comments drew applause from the audience, which included members of the group she and Zachariades had recruited.
Speaking of dynamic cities such as San Francisco, architect Juan Caycedo said, “What we have is an opportunity to create one of those memorable places” and make Boca Raton unique.
Kelly Smallridge, president and CEO of the county’s Business Development Board, said improvements would help her persuade companies to move to Boca Raton.
“As you are creating the vision, I urge you to think bold,” she said.
Only one Beachside resident spoke at the meeting, but many have contacted council members urging that their concerns be considered before any changes are made.
While they favor an improved roadway, Beachside residents want to head off any traffic lane reductions that would add to their travel time on and off the barrier island and impede fire-rescue personnel and evacuations during hurricanes.
In an April interview with The Coastal Star, Emily Gentile, president of the Beach Condo Association of Boca Raton and Highland Beach, said Beachside residents are not being heard as city officials consider road upgrades.
Much has changed since the city last looked at a new vision for downtown in 2007, she said, including a large increase in the number of people living year-round on the barrier island.
Reducing the number of Palmetto Park Road travel lanes would increase traffic congestion and lead to bottlenecks on both that street and State Road A1A, she said.
“Removing travel lanes from East Palmetto Park Road is a ridiculous idea,” and one that no traffic expert would support, Gentile said.
Drivers spend as long as 20 minutes getting off the barrier island because of traffic congestion, and reducing lanes would exacerbate that problem, Gentile said. That also would create a major safety issue when a hurricane is approaching.
She advises city officials to add barrier island residents to the ad hoc group to ensure their needs are considered as planning moves ahead.
Highland Beach commissioners also are worried about any possibility of reducing lanes from four to two. “If in fact it ends up going through, I believe it would lead to a significant increase in traffic on Spanish River Boulevard because people would avoid Palmetto Park Road,” Mayor Doug Hillman said at a May commission meeting.
He and other commissioners agreed to closely monitor developments and any impact on Spanish River Boulevard, which is just south of the Highland Beach border with Boca Raton.
In other Boca Raton business, the council on May 10 approved charging a $500 fee for buildings undergoing a certification process to ensure they are safe.
The city, acting in response to the Surfside condo collapse last June that claimed 98 lives, launched its certification program in January.
It requires buildings that are 30 years old and taller than three stories to be inspected. The first notices that buildings must start the process went to 14 building owners in January and another 14 were set to go out by May 1. A total of 191 properties meet the criteria for certification.
Honoring the fallen
Memorial Day, once known as Decoration Day, began after the Civil War to remember the fallen of that conflagration. It now honors all who have died in military service to the country.
Photos by Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
By Rich Pollack
They are the first things motorists entering Highland Beach see — either from the north or the south — but the town’s entry signs are no longer very inviting.
“They’re made of wood and they are rotting,” Vice Mayor Natasha Moore said. “They are beyond repair.”
Armed with a budget of as much as $75,000 for each of the gateway signs, town officials are in the process of coming up with replacements — and they want residents to help.
As early as this month the town will put out a request to residents for design ideas on what the signs should look like.
While some of the nitty- gritty details still need to be worked out, the town hopes that residents will either sketch out a design idea or take a photo of a sign that might serve as a model for the new town signs and send it in.
Moore, who is leading the effort, says the tentative plan is to have commissioners look over the submissions, narrow them down to a reasonable number and then put the choice out to residents for a vote.
The person who submits the winning design, Moore said, will get bragging rights and most likely recognition on or beside each new entry sign.
Moore and other commission members see the contest as a way to continue strengthening relationships between the town and the community.
“The goal of the project is to replace the signs and to encourage residents to be a part of the process,” she said. “We value resident input and we want to be in partnership with them.”
The contest, she said, is at least partially in response to feedback from residents following a March referendum where some in town said they wanted to have more involvement in community decisions.
Moore said she is hoping residents embrace the idea of a contest and come up with ideas that can be developed.
“You don’t have to be a graphic designer,” she said, adding that ideas can be submitted either electronically or on paper.
Some ideas, she said, could come from signs residents see during summer travel, even overseas.
The chosen design, Moore said, could also be used as part of the signage in front of Town Hall.
“I think the signs are important to residents,” she said. “They’re a reflection of our town and they set a tone for people coming into town.”
By Rich Pollack
Highland Beach may have found a financial unicorn.
As the town continued the process of starting its own fire department separate from Delray Beach, leaders began to look for ways to finance a little more than half of the expected $10 million startup costs.
Rather than go through the time-consuming and cumbersome process of issuing bonds — which would require a vote of residents — town leaders agreed last month to look for bank loans that would provide flexibility and a fixed rate.
What they found was a loan from Georgia-based Synovus Bank with a combination of flexible terms that appear to be just as rare as the elusive mythical creature.
“We call it the unicorn because our financial adviser had never seen anything like it in the marketplace,” said Town Manager Marshall Labadie.
Because of the unique structure of the just over $5 million, 10-year loan, the town likely will see significant savings on the interest it pays.
“In the long run, it will end up costing us less,” said Mayor Doug Hillman, who along with others on the Town Commission looked at several options. “This is a better deal for the town.”
Under terms of the loan, which comes with a fixed 3.26% interest rate, the town is not required to take all of the money at close and will not begin paying interest until it begins taking the money or until a year and a half after closing.
The arrangement also allows the town to begin paying off the loan early without any penalty and makes it possible for partial payments or a full payment before all interest has to be paid.
“It also means we don’t pay interest on money we don’t use,” Labadie said.
Those terms are important to Highland Beach since the town is planning to use the loan to help pay for the cost of building a new fire station.
Both Labadie and Hillman point out that expenses related to the construction will not all come at once, so finding a loan that allows the town to take money when needed rather than all at once was important.
Hillman also pointed out that the town may not need all of the loan since it may be able to find additional money during the course of the construction.
The Town Commission already has pledged to use $4 million from reserves to start the fire department and could pledge additional funds should the reserves grow.
Hillman led the charge for the town to get the loan quickly — and lock in an interest rate — recognizing that interest rates most likely will continue to rise.
“It behooved us to get the loan now, even though we don’t need the money today,” he said.
Along with rising interest rates, the town has had to deal with rising material costs and supply chain issues that could affect the cost of the fire station.
Labadie said he is going over plans for the new station to see if the town can make changes to reduce costs.
Changes, he said, could include different, more accessible materials for things such as flooring than had originally been planned.
“We’re looking at what do we absolutely have to build to satisfy the requirements of what we need for our own fire department,” Labadie said.
By Steve Plunkett
Boaters who need a ramp to reach the water will have a special Fourth of July this year — Silver Palm Park’s ramps, off-limits since September, will finally reopen.
And permits to use the ramps, usually $60 and good from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, will cost $25 and be valid for this July, August and September.
The City Council approved the rate at its May 24 meeting.
“This will just open the boat ramp and the parking area for the boats,” City Manager Leif Ahnell said. “The rest of the park and the other amenities will not be available. We’re actually still working on Silver Palm Park.”
Ahnell also said neighboring Wildflower Park and the rest of Silver Palm will reopen to the public in September, “hopefully the earlier part of September rather than the later.”
Silver Palm’s boat ramps closed on Sept. 7 for what was planned to be six months to relocate the restrooms, add a new ramp and other construction. But supply issues and an unexpected sea wall replacement slowed the work.
Ahnell said he did not yet know whether the new bathrooms will open when the ramps do.
“All of the Wildflower side but even on Silver Palm, there will be areas blocked off, under construction,” he said. “We as well as the contractor wanted to get the boat ramp opened as quickly as possible.”
The daily use fee for the boat ramps will remain $25. Any resident of Palm Beach County can buy the daily or three-month permit.
Boaters were directed to other ramps in Delray Beach, Boynton Beach and Deerfield Beach while Silver Palm was closed. But Boynton Beach and Deerfield Beach had plans to limit access because of their own ramp renovations.
Boca Raton’s construction is part of a multimillion-dollar project to enhance Wildflower/Silver Palm Park with new walkways, green spaces, public art, a pavilion, shade structures, additional parking and a much-anticipated connection between both parks under the Palmetto Park Road bridge.
The parks are separated by Palmetto Park Road on the west side of the Intracoastal Waterway.
By Mary Hladky
With the Boca Raton Brightline station expected to open in December, the city soon will begin work to make the streets to and from the station and downtown more attractive and pedestrian and bicycle friendly.
Brightline originally wanted the city to build an elevated pedestrian bridge that train passengers would use to reach Mizner Park. But the estimated cost of that project was between $7 million and $12 million because the bridge would have to be enclosed and air-conditioned due to Florida’s climate. That prompted concerns about vagrants camping out in the bridge.
So the city scrapped that idea and opted to enhance Northwest First Avenue and Northwest and Northeast Second Street.
Even so, the beautification work along the four-block stretch will cost $3.3 million, more than double what was anticipated two years ago, because of the rising materials costs and supply chain issues.
Northwest First Avenue, immediately west of the Florida East Coast Railway tracks, will be one southbound lane flanked by trees and foliage, with a wide paver path on the east side of the road that would be shared by pedestrians and bicyclists and a concrete sidewalk on the west side.
Walkers and cyclists would turn east on Northwest Second Street. After crossing Dixie Highway, where the road becomes Northeast Second Street, it will be two lanes and a turn lane with two wide shared pedestrian and cyclist lanes. Existing shade trees will be preserved and new trees added, as well as additional landscaping, lighting and a new signalized intersection at Northwest First Avenue and Northwest Second Street.
Brightline broke ground on the station in January and work has proceeded quickly.
The 38,000-square-foot station and adjacent 455-space parking garage will be located on city land just east of the Downtown Library.
The cost of the $46 million project is partly defrayed by a $16.3 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant. Brightline is paying $20 million of the station cost, while the city will spend $9.9 million on the garage.
Brightline halted passenger service in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, resuming operations in November.
Passengers are quickly returning. Ridership hit pre-pandemic levels in February. According to Brightline’s most recent financial report, the upscale passenger trains carried 107,069 passengers in March, compared to 91,903 passengers in March 2019.
The average ticket cost $21.38 in March, the highest to date as back-in-service promotions have phased out.
As Brightline works to build its Boca Raton station, railroad crossing reconstructions near the station site east of the Downtown Library will cause road closures and detours in June.
The Florida East Coast Railway crossing at Palmetto Park Road will be closed for five days, from 8 a.m. on June 11, a Saturday, to 7 p.m. the following Wednesday, June 15.
Westbound Palmetto Park Road traffic will be directed north on Dixie Highway to Northwest Second Street, west to Northwest Second Avenue, and south on Northwest Second Avenue to Palmetto Park Road.
Eastbound traffic will travel a reverse route.
The Northwest Second Street crossing will be closed 13 days, from 8 a.m. on June 18 to 7 p.m. on June 30.
Westbound Northwest Second Street traffic will be directed to go south on Dixie to Palmetto, west to Northwest Second Avenue, and north to Northwest Second Street.
Eastbound traffic will again do the reverse.
The long-anticipated $46 million station is expected to open in December.
— Mary Hladky
HIGHLAND BEACH — Madonna Therese Mahon of Highland Beach and Madison, Connecticut, died at the family beach house in Madison on May 15. She was 62.
Born Nov. 20, 1959, in Columbus, Ohio, she was the second eldest child of Arthur J. Mahon and Myra Ellen (Murphy) Mahon while her father was serving in the Air Force. Shortly thereafter the family relocated to New York.
As a child, Madonna was a gifted singer and athlete. Tall and strong for her age, she earned the reputation as a ferocious dodgeball player at Pleasantville Elementary School in Westchester, New York. When she got control of the ball the other side didn’t just dodge, they ran screaming for cover!
She excelled at swimming, skiing and tennis and enjoyed team competitions. Summer was her favorite time of year because she shared so many joyful days at Candlewood Lake, Connecticut, with her Slote family cousins and in Madison with her Burris family cousins.
Madonna excelled in college, graduating summa cum laude from Marymount College. She then joined IBM as a sales representative.
Her greatest life legacy is the work she did with people. She spent many years living in, and working for, nonprofit organizations that were dedicated to helping people heal and transform their lives. Her own courage, wisdom, compassion and ability to find humor when faced with great life challenges — including four surgeries for lung cancer — served as an inspiration to the many lives she touched during those years.
She dedicated the last part of her life to spending time with her family, including being a traveling companion and aide to her father after the death of her mother.
In addition to her mother, Madonna was predeceased by her beloved younger brother and best friend, Arthur Logan Mahon, who died in November 2020.
She leaves behind her father, sisters Maura Ellen Mahon and Nancy Beth Mahon, sister-in-law Susan Trerotola, nephew Christopher Logan Trerotola-Mahon, niece Emelia Ann Trerotola-Mahon and many treasured cousins from the Mahon, Burris, Fitzpatrick, Slote and O’Leary families.
She also leaves behind her cherished dogs and constant companions, Fluffy and Nyla.
A memorial Mass was held May 21 at Saint Margaret’s Church in Madison. Donations may be made in her memory to any local ASPCA. To sign the online guest book, visit www.swanfuneralhomemadison.com.
— Obituary submitted by the family
A Boca Raton man at Boca Bash tried to strangle and hold his girlfriend underwater until witnesses broke up the struggle, authorities said.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers charged Cole Goldberg, 23, with felony attempted murder and domestic battery in the April 24 incident as hundreds of boats gathered in Lake Boca Raton for the annual Boca Bash party.
Witnesses said Goldberg and the woman got into a heated argument before she jumped into the water to get away and he followed.
Goldberg, a witness said, “came up from behind her and grabbed her by the neck and pushed her underwater. He held her underwater and (another witness) pulled her away from him,” the FWC arrest report said.
The girlfriend, 32-year-old Caroline Schwitzky, told FWC officers that she and Goldberg had been dating for about a year. Schwitzky played a modeling agent in 2016 in the reality show “90-Day Fiancé: Happily Ever After?” on cable channel TLC.
Goldberg was taken to the Palm Beach County Jail and later released on $60,000 bond.
In other incidents at Boca Bash, authorities charged nine people with boating under the influence, one for producing a fake ID and another on an out-of-county warrant.
— Steve Plunkett
Highland Beach Police Officer Nathania Lai patrols the Intracoastal Waterway aboard the town’s new 28-foot marine vessel. The police presence makes boat speeds drop even if Lai issues no citations. Photos by Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
Related story: Man at Boca Bash charged with trying to kill girlfriend
By Rich Pollack
Highland Beach resident Barry Axelrod was relaxing on his dock overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway on the last Sunday in April as boat after boat sped past on the way south to the annual Boca Bash celebration.
“It was the scariest thing,” Axelrod said. “They were going really fast and they were going wherever they saw an opening to get around other boats.”
Axelrod watched as the recklessness continued for about an hour and a half and then witnessed a dramatic shift. “All of a sudden everything calmed down,” he said.
Looking to his left, Axelrod saw the reason for the change: Highland Beach’s new police boat was heading his way and boaters were taking notice.
“I’m thinking, ‘Thank God we have that boat,’” he said.
Since its launch in early March, the town’s $164,000 police boat, with Officer Nathania Lai at the helm, has been doing what it did that Sunday — slowing boaters down on the Intracoastal between the Linton Boulevard and the Spanish River Boulevard bridges just by being there.
“Our goal from the start was to make this stretch of the waterway safer for everyone who uses it,” said Highland Beach Police Chief Craig Hartmann. “We’re seeing that happen as a result of our presence and our visibility.”
Though the marine unit is still in development, with other officers being trained and maintenance issues being worked out, people with views of the Intracoastal say they’ve noticed a dramatic change even on days when not a lot of boats are on the water.
“We have already seen a difference,” said Alan Croce, a resident of Penthouse Highlands. He and a couple of dozen fellow residents met with Lai and other officers to learn more about the department’s waterway safety efforts.
“As time goes on and the knowledge that there’s a police boat out there grows, we do expect people to slow down even more and to operate their boats safely and with respect to others,” Croce said.
Lai and the police boat were on the water the Saturday before Boca Bash — a party on Lake Boca Raton that drew scores of boats — keeping an eye out to ensure boaters were observing the speed limit, which until the end of May is 25 miles per hour. The speed limit increases to 30 mph from June 1 to Sept. 30.
Heading north, Lai pointed a radar gun at a vessel coming her way that looked from a distance to be moving at a pretty fast clip. The radar, however, told a different story and showed that the boater was observing the speed limit.
“When other boaters see us, they mostly slow down,” said Lai, who spent a few years as a sergeant in the Miami Police Department’s marine unit and worked as a reserve officer in Broward County’s Lighthouse Point before coming to Highland Beach.
On this day, Lai reminded at least one person on a jet ski and a few boaters of the speed limit by motioning for them to take it a little easier on the throttle or by holding up two fingers in one hand and five in the other.
Highland Beach police had not written any boating citations as of late April, but Lai on several occasions had stopped boats for speeding, usually with the focus on educating the boaters about the need to slow down. She also had stopped boats for routine safety checks if something caught her eye.
“We’re focusing on making our presence known and on educating other boaters,” she said.
FWC citations are up
Highland Beach is not the only law enforcement agency to have a presence in the area, with officers from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and marine units from Boca Raton and now Delray Beach also around.
Delray Beach police recently formed a new marine unit that includes 12 part-time officers and two sergeants. The unit has two boats, both of which were in the water during the Sunday of Boca Bash, according to a department spokesman.
Since the beginning of the year, several boaters navigating the stretch of Intracoastal Waterway along Highland Beach have been stopped by FWC officers.
According to FWC records, six citations and 11 warnings were issued in the area in a little more than the first three months of this year compared with two citations and nine warnings issued in all of 2021.
State Rep. Mike Caruso said that the FWC now has a patrol boat based in the area and has installed radar to collect data on the speed of boats coming through.
Those actions come following two fatal boating crashes in the area within the last year.
In August, 37-year-old Samantha Esposito of West Palm Beach died after the northbound center-console boat she was in crashed into a sea wall, ejecting her and six others, including three children.
Then on Jan. 15, 63-year-old Richard Mineo of Delray Beach was killed when the center-console boat he was piloting hit a wake and went airborne before crashing into pilings and eventually hitting a nearby docked boat. Mineo was thrown from the boat, as were two boys onboard. The boys were pulled from the water and treated by paramedics before being taken to a trauma center.
Both crashes are under review by the FWC, which is not releasing details of either crash pending completion of the investigations.
Initial reports indicate that a combination of large wakes and speed may have been contributing factors in both cases.
Another deterrent is a radar sign at the south end of town designed to catch the eyes of northbound boaters. Residents say the measures have worked after two fatal wrecks on the waterway since last August.
New sign displays speeds
Highland Beach commissioners agreed to create a marine unit and spend $164,000 on a new boat late last year following the first crash.
In addition to having the boat on the water, Highland Beach police have installed a speed limit radar sign on the dock of Boca Highland Beach Club and Marina at the south end of the town.
Similar to signs on land that register motorists’ speeds, the sign on the water lets boaters know what the Intracoastal speed limit is and whether they’re exceeding it. Hartmann said the town hopes to install a similar sign at the north end of town.
Mark Herman, a Boca Highland resident and boater, says the sign gets the attention of boaters coming north from Boca Raton. They have slowed down as required as they pass under the Spanish River bridge but then speed up as they enter the waters by Highland Beach.
“You may not know how fast you’re going but that radar sign makes you more aware,” Herman said.
The sign, the town’s police boat and the presence of other law enforcement agencies all appear to be making an impact, along with Highland Beach police efforts to make people aware of the stepped-up efforts.
‘Really calmed down’
Like Axelrod, town Commissioner Peggy Gossett-Seidman said she was surprised by the dramatic change from previous years of the Boca Bash.
“This is the first time in 31 years that boats weren’t speeding coming back in the afternoon,” said Gossett-Seidman, whose backyard faces the water. “There were remarkably lower speeds.”
Gossett-Seidman says she has noticed a change even when the police boat isn’t patrolling.
“There are several boating websites and I’ve heard that the word is out about Highland Beach,” she said. “Everything has really calmed down.”
By Steve Plunkett
The developer that set off a firestorm of angry opposition in 2019 with plans for a four-story duplex on the beach is back with a more modest proposal: this time for a three-story, single-family home with 59% less window and door glass facing the ocean.
But when Boca Raton’s Environmental Advisory Board convened a hearing April 28 to consider the revised project, a representative for Azure Development LLC, which owns the undeveloped lot at 2600 N. Ocean Blvd., asked for a postponement.
“At 3:45 on Friday [April 22] we received from the city a staff report that contains more than 100 pages, including reports from experts that have not been used previously. And we did not have an opportunity to meet with our experts to prepare to discuss it,” Robert Sweetapple, the developer’s lawyer, said once the meeting was underway.
The audience of 80 or more citizens who packed the auditorium of the city’s 6500 Municipal Building let out a collective groan. Erica Allen, vice chair of the EAB, felt their pain.
“I would like to deny the postponement. I think it’s difficult for a lot of people to come out, and he’s had this plan for days now,” Allen said.
But board Chairman Rick Newman and member Margaret Horty voted yes, and the hearing was over. Members Lyn Forster and Ben Kolstad were absent.
No date was set for the rescheduled session.
To proceed, the project needs a variance from the City Council to build seaward of the Coastal Construction Control Line. A recommendation from the EAB to approve or deny the variance is the last step before council action.
In their report to the advisory board, city planners raised mostly the same objections they had three years ago.
“Staff … concludes that while the new proposal to build a single-family home rather than the previously proposed duplex is less impactful in regards to the massing of the structure, the criteria for granting a CCCL variance still have not been satisfied by the application,” the report said. It added that the proposal “would have excessive, deleterious environmental impacts, and is not sensitive to its environmental context.”
The city planners were not satisfied with the 59% reduction in glass facing the ocean, which is accompanied by reductions of 82% and 87% on the sides of the home. The concern is that light from the home will discourage sea turtles trying to nest and disorient hatchlings trying to find the ocean.
“The Applicant can derive reasonable use of the Property by proposing a structure with far less mass and glass (particularly on the east facing elevation) that has fewer impacts to nesting sea turtles associated with development lighting and fewer impacts to dune vegetation,” the report said.
City staff also had a number of questions that it said Azure had not answered yet. The information sought includes details on a rooftop terrace and terrace safety barrier, a sidewalk plan, a landscape plan that shows specific plant locations, and structural details for the house.
Besides the terrace, the rooftop will feature a pool and summer kitchen. The house will also have four bedrooms, six and one-half baths and a wine cellar. The garage will hold two vehicles; the driveway can provide parking for three or four more vehicles.
Sweetapple felt cheered when he saw a page in the report labeled “Conditions for Approval” followed by 30 items.
“For the first time, we’ve received some positive indication from the city regarding what could be done to encourage staff to approve the application. We’ve been working since 2016 on this application,” he said.
But Brandon Schaad, the city’s director of development services, quickly turned on his microphone to say that the page’s label was incorrect.
“The words there at the top are in error, and I apologize for that,” Schaad said, repeating that staff’s recommendation was to deny the variance.
Once the application reaches the City Council, Deputy Mayor Andrea O’Rourke and council member Monica Mayotte will have to sit out the discussion and not vote on the variance. After the council denied a variance for the duplex plan in 2019, Azure obtained a court ruling that emails O’Rourke and Mayotte sent residents showed they had a prejudicial bias against the project.
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