Palm Beach County wants to spend $400,000 to study eight-laning Northlake Boulevard from Military Trail to Beeline Highway.
Palm Beach Gardens and its many homeowners associations along the six-lane roadway want no such thing.
But the potential to talk out their differences blew up publicly last week when County Engineer David Ricks refused to attend a meeting with Palm Beach Gardens City Manager Ron Ferris.
“I got a phone call from David Ricks, who said he was advised from higher ups at the administration level he is not to meet with the city of Palm Beach Gardens,” Ferris told City Council members Thursday night.
Ricks had agreed to the meeting, set up for Oct. 5 at Gardens City Hall by North County Neighborhood Coalition President Sal Faso, and had even participated in picking the date for the meeting, Faso said.
By backing out, Ferris told the council, Ricks blocked officials from doing their jobs.
It’s “quite a setback when you think about the professionalism of administration at county and city levels, the most important thing that they have to do is communicate with citizens,” Ferris said.
Widening that three-mile segment of Northlake would affect Gardens most, he said.
“We wanted to understand where they were coming from so that when we did a presentation we would at least know what their intentions were long term,” he told the council. “Unfortunately, that didn’t occur. And I’m embarrassed to tell you that they refused to meet with us. So we’re going to move on with what we do know.”
Ferris also told the council he wanted to give a heads up — what he called a “professional courtesy” — to Ricks before he unleashed a blistering indictment of the eight-laning concept to the City Council Thursday night.
But the meeting-that-wasn’t threatens to escalate a simmering dispute into an all-out clash between the city and county, which are locked in a heated court battle over impact fees, now before an appeals court.
Ferris, who has been Gardens city manager since 2000, has a history of frosty relations with the county dating back to the days of County Commissioner Karen Marcus. But in past years he has been able to meet with county administrators even on the most contentious issues, such as the Bay Hill traffic signal in which Gardens threatened a lawsuit until the county acquiesced.
Thursday’s presentation ended with Ferris putting the phone numbers for Ricks and County Administrator Verdenia Baker on the screen for “anyone who wants to communicate with the administration and county engineer about this study.”
Ricks and Baker could not be reached Friday for comment to explain why Ricks didn’t go to the meeting with Ferris. County staff said they needed more time to answer other questions about widening the boulevard.
Don’t want to be Okeechobee Boulevard
The homeowner associations along Northlake, including PGA National and Ballenisles, represent some of the most important voting blocs in city elections. They say the widening would be unsafe and cost too much.
Mathew Kamula, president of the Osprey Isles Homeowners Association, told council members Thursday that the roadway expansion would change life for those living along Northlake.
“Our residents did not buy into the Southern Boulevard-Okeechobee Boulevard way of life. We bought into Palm Beach Gardens,” he said. “We bought into the green. The nice frontages. That’s what we looked for. That’s what we spent our money on. That’s what we’d like to maintain.”
Faso, who lives in Ibis, told the council an eight-lane road would be hazardous and upset residents’ routines.
“It’s not in the character of this area to have an eight-lane highway in the middle of these prominent residential communities,” he said. “We believe this is going to be jeopardizing public safety.”
Residents of The Acreage, an area with about 40,000 residents living on one-acre lots farther west, consider Northlake a lifeline and its widening a critical step to avoid future gridlock.
In January 2021, County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, who represents The Acreage, led a 4-3 vote in favor of adding the eight-lane section to the growth map, countering Commissioner Maria Marino’s request that it be dropped by pointing to developments approved by Gardens, such as Avenir and its 3,900 homes.
“Palm Beach Gardens has approved extensive development on the west end of Northlake Boulevard,” McKinlay said. “And I fear if we don’t do this expansion what we’re going to create is a bad bottleneck problem.”
Marino, who represents north county, was joined by Commissioners Robert Weinroth and Dave Kerner on the losing end of the 4-3 vote. Adding the eight-lane option to the growth map spells out the road’s ultimate size but doesn’t start the clock ticking for construction, which could be decades away.
But the eight-laning does not appear to have yet gone through the next stage of reviews to be added to the growth map. And the feasibility study will show that it’s not worth adding because the cost of buying land to expand the road will be “prohibitively expensive,” Marino said.
“I have from the beginning said this is a boondoggle,” she told the City Council Thursday night.
Northlake widening allows 17,000 more cars
To find out just what the widening would cost, county commissioners in December voted unanimously on a five-year road plan that included the feasibility study, at that time pegged at $350,000.
At that meeting, Ricks said consultants would estimate the cost of construction and of buying land to add 11 feet to both sides of the road.
Going from six lanes to eight would increase the road’s capacity from 50,300 vehicles per day to 67,300.
Curiously, the county did not suggest widening the roadway west of Beeline to Ibis, the three-mile segment that passes through the West Palm Beach Grassy Waters Preserve. West Palm has spent more than a decade fighting the extension of State Road 7 on the west side of the preserve, which provides city drinking water.
The result is that Northlake would go from eight lanes on the east, to four lanes at Grassy Waters to six, and ultimately eight lanes, as it approaches Seminole Pratt Whitney Road.
“This expansion, contraction and expansion of lanes would appear to create a significant potential for traffic bottlenecks on Northlake Boulevard, could potentially result in worsening of traffic in that area, and should be addressed before any contemplated amendment moves forward,” West Palm Beach City Attorney Kimberly Rothenburg wrote in an objection letter.
EDITOR’S NOTE: David Ricks, county engineer, responded on Oct. 21, saying that the county already owns the right of way along Grassy Waters to make it an eight-lane road and it’s already reflected in the county growth plan. The county’s Thoroughfare Identification Map, shown here, reflects that.
The six-laning west of Ibis to Pratt Whitney is already under way and the reconstruction of the Northlake-Beeline interchange starts soon.
Condemnation costs topping $1 billion?
Faso, whose coalition includes 23 communities with 50,000 residents along Northlake, said he set up the Oct. 5 meeting between Ricks and Ferris in September. Ferris presented a Sept. 28 email that he sent to confirm the meeting. Faso said Ricks confirmed.
On Oct. 4, the day before the meeting, Faso said he learned that Ricks would not be coming.
“If two parties sit together in a room and have a discussion, not an argument … there’s nothing wrong with that,” Faso said. “That’s good communication. Transparent government. For the meeting to be canceled there’s an agenda someplace. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Despite the cancellation, Ferris went forward with his presentation Thursday to the City Council. City Engineer Todd Engle and GIS Manager Ross Gilmore presented slides detailing impacts to the eastern section of Northlake, which passes Christ Fellowship Church, Ballenisles, Montecito, Steeplechase and PGA National.
They showed how adding 11 feet to both sides of the road would force the removal and repositioning of electric lines, stoplights, monument signs, water features, drainage lakes, underground pipes and walls. Some homes would be demolished and entryways into communities and businesses would be dangerously shortened, they said.
City Attorney Max Lohman estimated that going to court to force 500 to 1,000 property owners along Northlake to give up land would cost $500 million to $1.5 billion.
In its January 2021 presentation, county staff estimated the right-of-way costs at $21.5 million and the total project at $56.9 million.
Ferris quipped that his staff’s work was so detailed and persuasive, it negated the need for the $400,000 study.
“Todd and Ross spent a good part of last week putting this together,” he told the council. “It did not cost $400,000.”
Ferris said he hopes the county lets the city know when it will vote to award the consulting contract so that the city can hold a public hearing first. Failing that, he said, the city would encourage residents to attend the county meeting to voice their concerns.
The City Council voted unanimously to oppose the county study and authorized Mayor Chelsea Reed to send a letter in opposition.
“This method of roadway expansion is old-fashioned. It’s antiquated. And it’s part of the reason why traffic here is so broken,” Reed told the council. “So we need to shape the vision for what transportation will look like in the next 25 years and it does not include paving over homes, paving over backyards, paving over businesses and paving over paradise.”
© 2022 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.