The hostility building in recent months between Palm Beach Gardens and Palm Beach County officials has reached a boiling point.
The two governments have feuded in the past, from the spat over a regional park to the ongoing showdown over the city’s mobility fee.
But a long-simmering dispute over a stoplight on Northlake Boulevard seven miles west of Interstate 95 may blow the lid off the kettle.
On Thursday, the Palm Beach Gardens City Council gave their attorney the authority to take the county to court — not over the county’s refusal to allow the stoplight, although that remains likely, but over the county’s failure to promptly fulfill a city public records request.
The lawsuit would be the first between the two over the recent dustups although they neared the precipice of legal action last month. That’s when the county prepared to sue over the city’s mobility fee, which lets the city keep developer money that used to go to the county.
The two sides stepped back on April 30 after Gardens City Manager Ron Ferris huddled with County Administrator Verdenia Baker, an internal county email reveals.
But any goodwill born of that meeting may have been jettisoned Thursday when City Attorney Max Lohman accused the county of illegally blocking the city from installing a traffic signal on Northlake at Bay Hill Estates west of Ibis, a stoplight residents have long sought.
“They are inappropriately and in my opinion illegally exercising bureaucratic muscles to our detriment,” Lohman told the council. “Their motivations I could speculate on but I’ll leave that for the rest of you to do. But what they’re doing in my opinion is a blatant violation of the law and an abuse of their power.”
‘Unbelievable’ county would ‘slow roll’ public records request
But before suing over the stoplight, Lohman urged the council to sue the county over its refusal to quickly provide public records he sought on April 14.
While many governments take months to respond to records requests and rarely offer a timeline, county officials told Lohman they would need 20 days to respond to his seven-point request for information on nine intersections that had been granted stoplights.
Lohman scoffed at that length of time and said he narrowed his request to just one item — “all engineering studies, traffic studies, warrant analyses, and transportation studies” justifying the nine stoplights.
Then he waited.
“It’s unbelievable to me that another government would slow roll a public records request,” he said, praising his own ability to quickly reply to record requests, even when some of the records would expose actions that didn’t flatter the city.
It’s the kind of request the city could fulfill in minutes, not days or weeks, he told the council. The reason for the county’s silence, he said, must be more sinister.
“I suspect they don’t have them and they don’t want to tell me they don’t have them,” Lohman said. That would support his belief that the county is granting — and denying — stoplight warrants arbitrarily.
He sent the county a notice April 29 demanding a response in five days, a waiting period that would enable the city to collect attorney’s fees if it sued and won.
“Today was day five,” Lohman told the council. “I have yet to get a response. We’ve got nothing but crickets.”
He asked the council to let him file suit on Friday. But Friday came and went with no suit. Lohman, Ferris and Mayor Rachelle Litt did not respond to calls Friday to explain why the suit had not been filed.
UPDATE Monday May 10, 2021: A county email to the city sent at 4:53 p.m. Friday said the records would be ready as soon as the city paid for them. The cost would be $979.83, which the county said paid for an employee to spend 27 hours at $36.29 per hour to gather the records.
In light of the reply, city spokeswoman Candice Temple said, the city would not file the records lawsuit. But the resolution passed Thursday still allows for the city to sue over the county’s rejection of the traffic signal.
East vs. west
The records spat is a precursor to a stoplight showdown.
Residents say the flow of traffic along Northlake is too fast and too steady to allow them to safely make turns into or out of communities such as the recently annexed Bay Hill Estates and Rustic Lakes, the newly built Ancient Tree as well as Carleton Oaks and Osprey Isles.
But residents to the west in The Acreage, a sprawling bedroom community of about 50,000, say a stoplight would make intolerable traffic congestion even worse. With West Palm Beach’s 20-square-mile Grassy Waters Preserve as an obstacle, Acreage traffic has just two ways to go east: Okeechobee Boulevard or Northlake.
Coconut Boulevard in The Acreage, about a mile west of Bay Hill, and other north-south streets stack with cars every morning trying to go east on Northlake. If a stoplight went in, residents fear those backups would grow longer.
The problem, they say, is that Northlake is just two lanes west of Coconut. A long-planned widening project is about 18 months out. When Northlake is widened, allowing more room for cars to stack, the stoplight will be fine, they say.
They also say they tried to get a stoplight at the deadly Hall Boulevard and Northlake intersection, 3.4 miles west of Bay Hill, but county officials deemed it unwarranted.
The fight is reminiscent of the county’s battle with West Palm Beach over extending State Road 7 north to Northlake, a way that would give Northlake commuters an alternative route, but not until they are east of Bay Hill Estates.
While that fight has resulted in city and county taxpayers spending millions, it’s too early to say which side will foot the bill for a legal fight over the stoplight. It’s likely, however, that taxpayers will feel the pinch.
‘An unjust burden on my neighbors’
The Bay Hill request became heated in March 2019, a year after Bay Hill Estates and two neighboring communities voted to be annexed in Palm Beach Gardens.
Emails exchanged at the time between County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, who represents western residents who object to the stoplight, and a former Acreage official, Michelle Damone, continue to draw dismay from Gardens residents who addressed the council Thursday night.
While writing that she found Northlake to be “extremely dangerous,” Damone said “to install that traffic light would become an unjust burden on my neighbors. No one can guarantee they arrive to work on time, never mind safely.”
“We are trapped by limited access in and out of a growing area. It’s become a quality of life issue,” wrote Damone, who now works as an aide to County Commissioner Maria Sachs.
McKinlay added “I am quite unhappy about this as this will further exacerbate the traffic coming in from the Acreage. They are literally held hostage by municipalities to the east.”
Two years later, stoplight supporters bristled over the comments.
“To the complaint by the people in the western communities saying that it’s going to slow them down in the morning, let me tell you, when there’s an accident on Northlake Boulevard it is gridlock,” Bay Hill Estate resident Judy Ahrens told the council Thursday. “And that will cause them to be way late in the morning.”
Matthew Kamula, president of the Osprey Isles Homeowners Association, said the hostage comment goes both ways.
“The drivers coming out of communities east of this intersection are currently being held hostage for making simple left-hand turns onto Northlake Boulevard, due to the infrequent breaks in traffic,” he said.
‘How on earth did we ‘inadvertently’ leave out an entire segment on Northlake Blvd?’
The roots of the dispute lie in a mistake, County Administrator Baker said in a February 2019 email to McKinlay.
A 2018 agreement between the city and the county gave the county traffic control authority over the segment of Northlake in front of the new Avenir community, Baker wrote. “Inadvertently,” she wrote, “the segment fronting Bay Hill Estates was never included in this agreement.”
McKinlay responded the next day.
“How on earth did we ‘inadvertently’ leave out an entire segment on Northlake Blvd?????” she wrote.
“Because this was a complete screwup by County staff,” McKinlay continued, “do you think we can expedite a conversation around two things as soon as possible.”
She suggested rushing the Northlake widening project and asking the city to delay the stoplight until the road is widened, a position she continues to support.
But Gardens officials say they don’t have to wait. Spurred by residents who fear someone is sure to die crossing the road, they take a position spelled out in Baker’s 2019 email to McKinlay.
While the county’s traffic study did not show the need for a signal, Baker wrote, “the City has traffic control jurisdiction over this area and may choose to place a traffic signal at Bay Hill entrance without a signal being warranted.”
Now the county says the city can’t do that.
‘The county’s self-created criteria’
Two years of traffic studies and citizen entreaties came to a head in April with an exchange of letters between County Engineer David Ricks and City Attorney Lohman.
The city’s study relied incorrectly on turns from Northlake into the communities rather than the delays facing traffic departing the communities, Ricks wrote. Two county studies showed “hardly any delay” facing drivers turning left off of Northlake into the Bay Hill Estates.
“Therefore, it is not appropriate to use the westbound left turn traffic volumes to justify a signal,” Ricks wrote.
He also disputed the city’s contention that it alone had the right to approve the signal. “Notwithstanding the city’s approval of the (city’s) signal warrant report, the county cannot permit the installation of a traffic signal that it finds not to meet the minimum warrants.”
He adds, “the county will approve and issue the signal permit … in the future. This may happen when more of the already approved developments west of this location are constructed.”
Lohman’s April 14 reply drew a rebuke from McKinlay.
“Never in my seven years as an elected leader have I ever seen such a condescending email sent to a staff member,” she wrote. “It certainly reflects poorly on the City of Palm Beach Gardens.”
In his April 14 reply, Lohman disputed the county’s contention that the study used the wrong figures, saying “it is apparent that you have either ignored or are unable to comprehend both the criteria set forth in the applicable warrants … and the common meaning of the word ‘or.’”
Lohman said Ricks’ letter “incessantly harps” on points Lohman called “the County’s self-created criteria,” and misses a distinction to consider “either excessive delays OR conflicts.”
“The City does not require the County’s consent or approval to warrant the traffic signal. The traffic signal is warranted,” Lohman wrote. “You do not possess the discretion to withhold the subject permit just because you have arbitrarily and capriciously decided to do so.”
Lohman concluded with a warning that if the county “persists in its refusal to perform the ministerial duty of issuing the right-of-way permit,” the city may sue.
The nine intersections
City Attorney Max Lohman asked for county records justifying stoplights at these intersections:
Seminole Pratt Whitney Road at Persimmon
Seminole Pratt Whitney Road at Town Center Parkway South
Seminole Pratt Whitney Road at Town Center Parkway North
Military Trail at Sierra Drive
Hood Road at Artistry
Alton Road at Hood Road
Donald Ross at Emerson Street – Publix at Alton Center
Hood Road Publix at Frenchman’s Crossing Shopping Center
Southern Boulevard at Arden/20-Mile Bend
‘I 1,000-percent agree with our city attorney’
Lohman asked city council members to support a resolution that called for a conflict resolution approach designed under state law to avoid pitting two public bodies against one another in court.
The city and county had spent nine months under that approach to settle the mobility fee issue only to fail, leaving them on the edge of the court filing temporarily halted last month by the high-level talks. Lohman said he did not want to do that again.
“The other portion of it, which is absolutely going to be required,” he told the council, “is the determination that there are significant government interest and public health-safety-welfare issues at stake so we can avoid again going through the lengthy nine-month alternative dispute resolution process … and immediately file the lawsuit and compel them to issue our permit.”
He said he needs the public records to prepare the stoplight lawsuit.
The council did not hesitate.
“I 1,000-percent agree with our city attorney and manager that we can’t sit back and wait any longer,” Councilman Mark Marciano said. “We’re not going to wait for people to die just because a traffic study doesn’t warrant it. There comes a point when you have to say enough is enough.”
His colleagues voiced similar support.
“It’s politics between Gardens and the county because we have a lot going on that intermingles beyond this topic,” Councilman Carl Woods said, referring to the mobility fee dispute. “So, they want to play politics with it? So, don’t let them.”
As for the seven county commissioners, they agreed they could count on just one — Maria Marino, who supported installation of the stoplight when she served as Gardens mayor.
Marino, elected to the county commission in November, attended a city meeting May 3 with about 50 residents of the area and publicly voiced her support, Mayor Litt said.
Among county commissioners, Litt said, Marino “is a lone wolf right now.”
© 2021 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.