Proponents of the “Vote No” group that were stationed at the polling station in Highland Beach on Tuesday to inform voters of what was at stake before they cast a ballot. Ken Murphy, right, shares information with resident Bill McGrath prior to him voting. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
By Rich Pollack
In a record turnout, voters in Highland Beach overwhelmingly defeated three referendums that would have given town leaders the go-ahead to spend up to $45 million on improvements along State Road A1A.
In the race for an open Town Commission seat, newcomer Evalyn David gathered 37 more votes than incumbent Elyse Riesa. With the margin of victory just about 1.9 percent, ballots will have to be rechecked and certified on Friday before the result can be official.
One of the big stories of the election was the huge turnout, driven in part by the referendum questions and the efforts by opponents to drive support for their cause.
By the time the polls closed at 7 p.m. March 12 more than 2,000 of the town’s 3,712 voters had cast their ballots either in person or by mail.
The 54 percent turnout this year far surpasses the previous record 1,240 votes cast last year, which represented about 34 percent of the town’s registered voters.
Voters were asked to give commissioners permission to issue up to $16.55 million in bonds for a storm water improvement project, up to $11.25 million for improvements to the Ocean Walk multi-use corridor and surrounding areas and up to $17.2 million to place utility wires underground.
Only 6 percent of those casting ballots voted yes for funding of the storm water project and yes for underground utilities, while only 5 percent voted yes for the multi-use corridor improvements.
“This was a very big vote,” said John Ross, one of the founders of the Committee to Save Highland Beach, which led the opposition to the bond items. “It was an overwhelming rejection of half-baked plans.”
Ross said he was surprised by the number of residents who voted against the bond issues.
“We knew we were going to win, but we didn’t expect this kind of thing,” he said.
Town Commissioner Barry Donaldson, the most outspoken supporter of the proposed improvements, believes he and other members of the Progress Highland Beach political action committee – formed to support the referendum items – were hindered in their efforts by misunderstandings of the issues.
“I would say we had a difficult time trying to change misconceptions,” he said.
Donaldson said the Town Commission will have to go back to square one to determine the next steps.
“We basically have to hit the reset button,” he said.
Had the referendums passed, all three projects would have been done in conjunction with the Florida Department of Transportation’s plan to make improvements to A1A three to five years from now.
The three proposed projects divided the town — and the Town Commission — and led to packed commission meetings filled with boisterous outbursts and personal verbal attacks aimed at commissioners favoring the bond issues.
Opponents of the bonds argued that the costs were too high and the improvements weren’t needed. They also voiced concerns about a lack of details and the long-term impact that large amounts of debt would have on Highland Beach’s ability to borrow money in an emergency.
Donaldson and other advocates argued that the projects would resolve issues that have been discussed for decades.
Both David and Riesa, who were competing for the lone open commission seat that carries a three-year term, came out against the bond issues.
David said she felt good about the results but was waiting to see the result of the review of ballots.
“I feel we ran a good clean race,” she said. “What will happen, we’ll wait and find out on Friday.”
Riesa, who served two years on the commission after filling an open seat, ran on her experience, while David said it was time for “fresh thinking” on the commission.
“I will be at the swearing-in ceremony to wish Evalyn well,” Riesa said.