The Coastal Star

Highland Beach: Debate revs up after split vote to keep referendum on ballot

Related Story: Three ballot questions face residents

By Rich Pollack

With an election set for March 12, proponents and opponents of three Highland Beach referendum issues ramped up their efforts: Those in favor of issuing up to $45 million in bonds formed a political action committee while those against gathered more grassroots support.

Over the last few weeks of February, both sides took to putting signs up along State Road A1A, with those from the outspoken Committee to Save Highland Beach just saying “No.”

At the same time, referendum advocates in the political action committee Progress Highland Beach posted signs and hired a marketing consultant to help get their message out.

“The stated purpose of Progress Highland Beach is to promote the referendum in the short term and in the long term we want to continue looking at other issues,” said Commissioner Barry Donaldson, whose wife, Marlynn, chairs the PAC and is its treasurer.

Voters will be asked to give town leaders the green light to float bonds for three projects that would coincide with the Florida Department of Transportation’s plan to improve State Road A1A in three to five years.

The town is asking voters to give it permission to issue up to $16.55 million in bonds for a stormwater improvement project to alleviate frequent flooding, up to $11.25 million for improvements to the Ocean Walk multiuse path along the west side of A1A and surrounding areas, and up to $17.2 million to place utility lines underground.

The three proposed projects have divided the town — and the commission — and have led to packed meetings where residents have lobbed personal attacks at commissioners who support the referendum.

The state initially told the town that it needed to have its general conceptual plans for improvements submitted by the end of March, but early last month the town received a letter from FDOT granting a one-year extension.

Commissioners, however, in a raucous meeting last month — complete with boos, cheers and shouts of “recall, recall” from the audience — voted 3-2 to keep the referendum on the March 12 ballot.

Commissioner Peggy Gossett-Seidman, whose communication with the state helped to get the extension offer, told commissioners that going forward with the referendum now could lead to failure to get needed support from voters.

“If we extend it, we can save it,” she said.

Vice Mayor Alysen A. Nila, Donaldson and Mayor Rhoda Zelniker voted to go ahead with the referendum, while Gossett-Seidman and Commissioner Elyse Riesa — who is up for re-election March 12 — voted to delay it.

Donaldson said he saw no reason to postpone the vote since much of the work on a conceptual plan had already been done.

Perhaps the leading advocate of spending up to $45 million on improvements, Donaldson argues that the project will finally resolve issues discussed for decades. He also sees the plan as being part of the town’s vision for the future.

“If we live for just right now and can’t look three or four years down the road, that would be unfortunate,” he said. “A1A is going to be torn up. If we’re going to make improvements, now’s the time to do it.”

Unlikely opposition to the plan is coming from the town’s Financial Advisory Board, which has advocated for getting more information before taking the issue of money to the voters.

“I’m looking at the future, but we have to be mindful of the risk,” said Greg Babij, chairman of the advisory board. “We want progress, but let’s have well-thought-out progress and a complete plan.”

While the Financial Advisory Board is concerned about the large cost of the project — estimating it will reach $80 million after interest if no federal or state funding or other grants are found — Donaldson thinks the improvements will increase property values enough to offset the cost of the project.

“I don’t know of any community that’s ever seen property values go down as a direct result of a project like this,” he said.

But Babij says there’s no guarantee against falling property values, because other factors could put the town in a tight spot.

“Borrowing a massive amount means you leave yourself no room to maneuver,” he said. “Do you really want to use up all your borrowing ability?”

While some residents have expressed concerns about some of the preliminary plans presented to commissioners, Donaldson points out that much of the actual design of the projects will be done after the vote, if the referendum passes.

“This is far from finished,” he said. “This is a funding authorization and we’re not asking voters to approve a design. That’s where the misconception lies.”

Town Manager Marshall Labadie rescheduled a planned early March forum to update residents on the project. Instead, the town will get a summary report from the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council, which served as consultants — and make that information available to the public. Ú

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Comment by Jane Perlow on February 28, 2019 at 2:13pm

Donaldson has a personal agenda regarding the referendums. Although he was cleared by Palm Beach Ethics for the apparent conflict of interest, the residents of Highland Beach see that he and his protégé Nila  hold  their own interests above those of the community.

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