Related story: Local, state partnerships to guide A1A in years to come
Looming referendum reveals divide within Highland Beach
By Rich Pollack
Highland Beach is a town divided.
With voters facing a March 12 referendum to greenlight up to $45 million in debt for State Road A1A improvements, battle lines are clearly drawn — and both sides are waging war via email blasts.
On one side are people who say it is time to stop kicking the can down the road and address issues talked about for years: solving drainage and stormwater problems, installing underground utilities and making improvements to the town’s 3-mile walking path on the west side of A1A.
“The question to voters is ‘Are you willing to take on debt to solve problems that have been voiced time and time again?’” said recently appointed Town Commissioner Barry Donaldson, who has long advocated for the improvements.
On the other side is a vocal group of residents who formed the Coalition to Save Highland Beach. They say the price tag for the improvements is too high and could create financial problems for the town.
They also argue it is unnecessary to spend local taxpayer dollars on several improvements that can be addressed by the Florida Department of Transportation when it is likely to repave A1A in three to five years.
“People aren’t unhappy here, people still want to live here, and people still want to buy homes here, so why not try what’s free before you start tearing everything apart?” asks John Ross, one of the founders of the coalition, which he says has more than 430 supporters.
Ross has found allies in some members of the town’s Financial Advisory Board — who fear the projects would create too much debt for the town and see putting the issue on the ballot now as premature.
“It feels a little like it’s ready, fire, aim,” board Chairman Greg Babij said. “Unfortunately, the Town Commission doesn’t have the luxury of time.”
FDOT’s plan to repave A1A in three to five years is driving Highland Beach’s timeline, since much of the work town leaders would like to see can be done in conjunction with the state “3R” project. As FDOT resurfaces, rehabilitates and restores the road, the town hopes it can piggyback onto the project and make improvements.
To have a say in what work it would like to see done in conjunction with the 3R project, the town is required to make a financial commitment prior to the middle of March. That deadline, FDOT officials say, is firm.
When voters go to the polls March 12, they will be asked to vote on three questions: authorizing the town to issue bonds of up to $16.55 million for stormwater improvements, $11.25 million for improvements to the multiuse Ocean Walk corridor, and $17.2 million to bury utility lines.
Were the town to finance the project for 30 years, the owner of property with a taxable value of $500,000 would pay approximately $576 a year, or about $48 a month for improvements, according to town projections. Over 30 years, that taxpayer would pay about $17,280 for the project, assuming the taxable value and interest rate remained the same.
If the project were financed over 20 years, the owner of property with a taxable value of $500,000 would pay $713.04 a year or $59.42 a month, according to the town. Over 20 years, the property owner would pay $14,260, assuming the taxable value and interest rate remain the same.
Were the homeowner to sell the property, the new owner would be responsible for paying the remaining debt through annual taxes.
“Is this affordable by the vast majority of people in Highland Beach?” Donaldson asks. “Absolutely.”
Town Manager Marshall Labadie points out that the $45 million figure — and the estimated cost to taxpayers — is the “not to exceed” number and does not include any funding for the project from grants or from other agencies, including FDOT.
Although what will happen if the funding is approved for underground utilities and drainage improvements is well defined, specifics surrounding the Ocean Walk project are still up in the air.
Questions about the finer points, says resident Mark Hamister — a supporter of the projects — may be distracting voters from the bigger picture.
“I’d rather not focus on every little detail and instead focus on the broader issues, which are the safety of roadways, the hardening of our electrical grid and — if residents want it — an improved walkway system.”
During a public workshop early last month, Kim DeLaney, the director of strategic development and policy for the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council — which serves as Highland Beach’s consultant on the project — presented three possible scenarios for the corridor.
Those options range from having just an 8-foot-wide concrete sidewalk to having a 10-foot-wide, multiuse, decorative concrete pathway with embedded lighting, improvements to the town’s entranceway features, small pocket parks and a 7-foot-wide bike lane on each side of the road.
DeLaney said she and her team are continuing to work with town staff to refine the plan for the Ocean Walk corridor and will present revisions to residents during a final design public workshop March 6.
She said there will also be an update on what grants and funding from other outside sources might be available.
Donaldson said if the voters approve the improvements to the A1A corridor, the town’s planning board will review the plans and make suggestions to commissioners on possible refinements.
Should voters reject all three proposals, FDOT will still go forward with its A1A resurfacing and would likely install 4- to 5-foot-wide bike lanes at its expense, DeLaney said.
In addition, there is a strong possibility FDOT will allow the installation of some form of lighted crosswalks, but at town expense. Labadie is working with the department on possible interim crosswalk improvements.
He said FDOT will likely also make swale improvements as part of he 3R project. But those improvements, according to a 2016 FDOT report, are not a long-term solution.
While Donaldson has expressed strong support for the improvements, both candidates running for the only open commission seat say they are opposed to the plan.
“I believe the town needs to address rainwater absorption issues and road crossing safety — just not in the way the referendum suggests,” said Evalyn David, who is running against incumbent Elyse Riesa for a three-year term. “I believe in responsible government spending.”
Riesa, who agreed to put the referendum before voters, said she decided to speak against it after doing extensive research.
“The enormous disruption for years, possible overruns and unrealistic costs to our residents over 30 years made the referendum a no vote for me,” Riesa said. “Do I still want to beautify and make important improvements to flooding and our walkway? Absolutely, but at a cost most residents can afford and feel great about.”
As Ross and the coalition continue to send out daily dispatches and town officials respond with email-blasted questions and answers, residents who still have questions can go to the town’s website, which has the referendum ballot language posted as well as presentations and much more.
“It’s important for people to know the facts so they can vote intelligently,” Mayor Rhoda Zelniker said.