The U.S. 1 bridge near Northlake Boulevard has been reduced to two lanes in each direction for more than four years since a 35-foot section of sidewalk and roadway plunged into the Earman River in October 2017.
The yearlong task of rebuilding the bridge won’t start until spring 2023.
To be ready, the Florida Department of Transportation is spending $1.7 million this year to buy property under the bridge and along the riverbanks.
Some of that money is going to the descendants of area pioneers who say they, not the public, own the river bottom, potentially muddying the waters in their yearslong battle with homeowners over access to backyard docks.
FDOT didn’t get involved in the contentious lawsuits that rage over the river bottom rights claimed by North Palm Beach Properties, which is headed by Kim Schwencke of Tampa, the son of one of the original North Palm Beach homebuilders, John “Jack” Schwencke.
But the state agreed to pay Schwencke’s company.
Three months after the state filed an eminent domain suit to take about a quarter of an acre from North Palm Beach Properties, the two sides settled. The state agreed to pay $102,000 to cover the company’s court costs, including attorney fees, and $275,000 for the rights to submerged land, court records show.
The land buy is one of several the state is pursuing before it can start the $7.5 million construction job to restore the bridge to three lanes of travel in each direction.
Plans also call for 4-foot bike lanes and 11-foot sidewalks on both sides of the bridge. The new fixed-span bridge would be 18 inches higher than the old and southbound cars would get an extra right-turn lane to go west on Northlake.
FDOT officials say they are planning a public meeting in late March and are preparing a project webpage.
They also have been working with North Palm Beach officials, who are pitching in an additional $190,000 to add decorative railings, light poles, wider sidewalks, illuminated village logos on bridge supports and the capacity to install underwater lighting.
The council even considered building a boardwalk under the bridge to allow pedestrians to cross beneath the roadway, but design difficulties and high costs persuaded them to pass at this time, Village Manager Andy Lukasik said.
Reconstruction required land buys
After the 2017 collapse of the sidewalk and road shoulder, FDOT inspectors told The Palm Beach Post that two post-tension wires that held the sidewalk to the bridge had failed, causing a huge chunk of concrete to drop into the river below and forcing officials to limit traffic to two lanes in each direction from three.
To rebuild the bridge by summer 2024, FDOT needs more space for stormwater pipes and other drainage structures and to add barriers to prevent erosion. That meant buying submerged land, as well as small parcels along the canal banks.
State officials went to court, not to ascertain who owns the river bottom, but to take nearly a quarter of an acre in five parcels owned by North Palm Beach Properties.
They initially offered $45,700 before settling three months later. The payout works out to $38 per square foot, with the state outright owning about half the property and temporarily controlling the rest through December 2027.
Frigate’s got higher payout
Frigate’s, a restaurant on the northeast corner of the bridge, settled with FDOT — also without a trial — for $346,000 for three parcels covering a little more than a tenth of an acre, which works out to about $64 per square foot.
The largest portion of the Frigate’s purchase went toward land at the restaurant’s entryway, which FDOT would temporarily control to give workers access to the riverbank, a factor in the higher payout.
FDOT officials, who still must buy three more parcels from other landowners, would not answer questions about the purchases.
FDOT ‘made a huge error’
But a homeowner on Ibis Way, where six homeowners have teamed up to sue over Schwencke’s demand for payment over access to their backyard docks, is worried that FDOT may have taken land that already belonged to the public.
“I think they made a huge error,” said Ron Lantz, a lawyer and longtime homeowner. “What Mr. Schwencke was really good at … he keeps the price lower than what it would cost you to litigate.”
That has resulted in many riverfront owners paying to settle but not the residents of Ibis Way, which is about a mile west of the bridge. They argue they have every right to the river bottom, which is part of the South Florida Water Management District’s C-17 Canal.
The state action, however, could bolster Schwencke’s claim to the land.
“FDOT acknowledged ownership through its own title search,” said Schwencke’s lawyer in the eminent domain case, Paul Bain of Tampa.
© 2022 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.