By Rich Pollack
When voters in Highland Beach go to the polls March 13 to choose a vice mayor and a town commissioner, they also will vote on whether to allow the town to spend up to $2.1 million on proposed new streetscape improvements.
Before they vote, however, residents will have a chance to learn more about the proposal, which three town commissioners support. The plan has raised concerns among some residents and with the other two members of the commission.
A community streetscape information meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 21 in the town’s public library, where residents will hear additional details about the proposed streetscape to have them better informed before they go to polls.
Residents will not vote directly on the project but will decide whether to allow the town to spend up to $2.1 million “to fund streetscape improvements consisting of replacing a 3-mile walk path along State Road A1A and upgrading signage, landscaping, lighting and similar accessories,” according to ballot language.
The referendum is necessary because Highland Beach’s charter requires voter approval for any project over $350,000.
The $2.1 million amount was calculated based on recommendations from an ad hoc citizens streetscape committee and estimates from a consulting firm and town staff.
In an informational pamphlet distributed to residents, town staff explained that commissioners do not anticipate having to raise taxes to fund the project.
“The plan is to self-fund the project with existing reserve funds and replenish the account over the next 10 years with proceeds from the Palm Beach County infrastructure surtax program,” according to the flier. “The amount is derived from an opinion of probable cost based on selections by the citizens streetscape committee, with the final cost and features ultimately determined during the project’s design phase.”
Among elements the committee recommended be included in the project are the replacement of the town’s 3-mile asphalt walking path with an aggregate, or shell, concrete path as well as upgrades to welcome signs at the north and south ends of town.
The plan also includes upgrading some street signage, relocating trash cans and upgrading some landscaping at certain points along the path.
While there is agreement among the town’s elected officials on the need for a new walking path, there is a split on the commission over not only whether enough information about the project is now available to voters, but also about the scope of the project.
In what amounts to a debate on whether the town should ask for the money or present a better plan first, Commissioners Rhoda Zelniker and Elyse Riesa say voters would be better able to make an informed choice about funding the project if they had more details.
Riesa suggested the town could have issued a request for information and asked landscape design firms to submit broad-brush proposals that would give more details about the project’s design. Those could have been done at a minimal cost, she said.
Without that information, Riesa said, it’s difficult to determine the true cost of the project and the $2.1 million estimate might be too low.
“There’s too many unanswered questions and the numbers may not be accurate,” she said.
Zelniker and Riesa also think the ballot language should have included drainage and crosswalk lighting into the plan. Zelniker said she would like to have seen the town ask three landscape architects for designs.
“To me, this is just replacing the sidewalk,” she said.
Mayor Carl Feldman, however, counters that it would have been unwise to spend money on design without voter approval to fund the project.
“We can’t do anything until the referendum passes and the money is allocated,” he said. “What happens if the residents vote no? Then we would have spent taxpayer money on a project that’s going nowhere.”
Once funding is available, Feldman said, the town will not only hire a company to do the design work on the project but also seek resident input what on could be included. Plans would then be submitted to the town’s planning board for approval.
Town officials estimate the design fee will be about $275,000, according to a report presented to the commission.
Feldman said the crosswalk lighting issue is being discussed separately from the streetscape project, while drainage in the area is being discussed with the Florida Department of Transportation, which is already conducting a drainage project in the area.
Because the project is on state right of way, FDOT would have to give final approval to plans before any work could be done.
Feldman said the town plans to make informational presentations this month to various groups, including homeowners associations and condo associations, to help voters to become more informed about the ballot question.
Highland Beach meet the candidates forum
The forum will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. Feb. 5 at the Highland Beach Public Library, 3618 S. Ocean Blvd.
It will be hosted by the League of Women Voters.
Voters will hear from two candidates for vice mayor and four candidates for one commission seat.
Information about the ballot question regarding setting aside money for streetscape improvements will also be presented.
For additional information, call the Town Clerk’s office, 278-4548.