Highland Beach residents meet at a workshop to see proposed improvements along State Road A1A and to provide input. The ambitious plan would cost the town as much as $45 million. Voters must approve the expenditure. Photo provided
By Rich Pollack
Voters in Highland Beach will have a chance in March to allow town leaders to spend up to $45 million on a series of long-term renovations along State Road A1A, barring last-minute changes this month.
At a special meeting in December, commissioners agreed to ask voters if they were willing to spend as much as $45 million over 20 or 30 years to fund a wide-ranging project that could include drainage improvements along A1A, installation of underground utilities and significant roadway and walking path improvements.
“This is an opportunity for residents to approve a large public project that will transform the landscape of Highland Beach,” Town Manager Marshall Labadie said.
Commissioners agreed to bring the funding for the major renovations along A1A to voters after hearing presentations from a representative of the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council, which is coordinating the project with the town, and the owner of an engineering firm, Captec, that provided cost estimates for the project.
The firm estimated costs that include $16.55 million for the drainage portion of the project, $17.2 million for underground utilities and $11.25 million for improvements — including beautification, resurfacing and landscaping — to the town’s 3-mile walking path. The $11.25 million would also include improvements along A1A such as lighted crosswalks and designated bike lanes.
The plan presented to the commission last month included eight pocket parks along the walking path — now called Ocean Walk — and widening it from 6 feet to 10 feet. The proposal included using colored, water-permeable surfacing with embedded lighting. Other elements, including entry monuments and possibly gazebos, are also included.
While Labadie said there might be limited flexibility in the cost of the underground utilities and the drainage project, commissioners could decide to scale back — or make other changes — to the Ocean Walk project.
“The final project will be a partnership between residents and the commission,” he said.
On Jan. 9, residents will gather with commissioners and planners to again share thoughts on the scope of the project. The workshop will provide planners with public input about possible design alternatives to those already presented to the commission.
In early December, a few dozen residents shared their thoughts on what they saw as priorities for renovations to A1A. Those suggestions were incorporated into the plan presented to commissioners later in the month.
Some residents who participated in the workshop complained they were “blindsided” because they were told not to worry about costs during the course of their discussions.
Labadie said the project likely would be financed through either a 20- or 30-year bond issue and provided commissioners with estimates on what that would mean to taxpayers.
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.
Labadie, however, cautioned 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 the Florida Department of Transportation.
Because the road is owned by the state transportation department, most if not all elements of the project must receive FDOT approval.
FDOT is repaving A1A as part of a “Three R” project (replace, repair and refurbish), which is driving the town’s schedule since much of the work can be done in conjunction with the state project.
The Three R project is a five-year process and is done only once every 20 years.
As FDOT replaces, repairs and refurbishes the road, the town hopes it can piggyback onto the project and make improvements while A1A is already being upgraded.
The town is under a tight deadline to get things done.
To have a say in the work during the project, the town is required to make a financial commitment prior to the middle of March.
To make that financial commitment, however, the town needs voter approval. To get the question on the ballot for the March 12 election, town officials must submit ballot language to the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections by the middle of this month.
“One of the challenges of this whole project has been competing timelines,” Labadie said.
Members of the Town Commission voted 4-0, with then-Mayor Carl Feldman absent, to bring approval of the bond issue to the voters.
“We’re giving this to the public,” Commissioner Rhoda Zelniker said. “Let the people decide.”
Vice Mayor Alysen A. Nila agreed, saying she thinks there are many residents in town who favor the project.
“This is a once-in-20-year chance to get something done,” she said. “If you don’t want to spend $48 a month, then don’t vote for it. But I know a lot of people who do.”