CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, the original story published Feb. 3, 2023, incorrectly attributed to Palm Beach Gardens City Attorney Max Lohman comments from the audience at the Jan. 13, 2023, Planning Commission meeting. The comments were made by Avenir attorney Brian Seymour, not Mr. Lohman. The story has been updated as of Feb. 5, 2023, to remove the incorrect information.
Palm Beach County planners and engineers, girding for construction of thousands of homes, are certain that sometime in the next 10 years traffic will dictate the eight-laning of parts of Northlake Boulevard.
Residents of the western gated communities in Palm Beach Gardens and West Palm Beach are equally certain an eight-lane road outside their neighborhoods would be a disaster, eliminating slow-down lanes, decorative entryways and lush landscaping to make way for a dangerous speedway.
On Wednesday, the residents won.
Palm Beach County commissioners voted 6-1 to refuse to preserve space for an eight-lane Northlake near the Avenir community on the county’s transportation improvement map. The map is used to put property owners on notice that their land may be needed one day to widen the road.
Commissioner Sara Baxter, whose district includes western communities that depend on Northlake to travel east, voted against. The advisory county Planning Commission, which reviewed the proposal on Jan. 13, had voted 8-1 in favor of the eight-lane section for 1.5 miles from the Gardens’ Sandhill Crane Golf Club to State Road 7 next to the Ibis Golf & Country Club.
County commissioners killed a similar move in November on 3 miles of eastern Northlake. That would have reserved space for eight lanes on Northlake from the Beeline Highway to Military Trail. While Gardens officials fought that measure as well, they want to work with the county to plan appropriately for future traffic needs, Gardens Mayor Chelsea Reed said.
She reminded commissioners that County Engineer David Ricks backed out of an Oct. 5 meeting at the last minute with City Manager Ron Ferris but the door remains open.
“We want to have discussions to find solutions and not just continue to object,” Reed said. “This is a connected region and not sitting at the table to collaboratively plan for safe roadways is to risk the lives of our residents as well as to waste their taxpayer money.”
‘That’s a lie and you know it’
West Palm Beach and Palm Beach Gardens have been fighting the eight-laning option since 2020. They sent representatives to the planning meeting and to Wednesday’s County Commission meeting, including Reed and West Palm Commissioner Joe Peduzzi.
At the Jan. 13 planning board meeting, Avenir attorney Brian Seymour clashed openly with county Traffic Division Director Mo Al-Turk, leading the board chairman to threaten to call security.
The dispute centered on requirements placed by Palm Beach Gardens upon the developers of Avenir, who are building nearly 4,000 homes that are expected to add thousands of cars daily to Northlake.
Al-Turk told the planning board that Avenir is required to help pay for roads, including to “partially fund the widening of Northlake Boulevard to eight lanes plus.”
Seymour shouted from the audience “That’s a lie and you know it, Mo.”
Lori Vinikoor, who was presiding over the meeting, declared “You are out of order and we’ll call security if you’re going to be speaking like that.” When Seymour tried to continue, she cut him off with “Public comment is over.”
Al-Turk proceeded to read from the 2016 Gardens resolution that paved the way for Avenir, citing its commitment to provide four through-lanes in each direction at the intersection of Avenir Drive and Northlake.
“Four plus four is eight,” Al-Turk told the board.
The insinuation is that Gardens allowed the traffic that Avenir will produce, acknowledged the need for eight lanes and now is fighting the county’s efforts to assure that eight lanes are provided.
“I am very upset with being accused of lying by an attorney for Avenir,” Al-Turk said.
While both men attended the County Commission meeting Feb. 1, neither spoke.
Avenir is now paying to widen a portion of Northlake to six lanes, but Gardens Planning and Zoning Director Natalie Crowley assured county commissioners Feb. 1 that Avenir has not been required to pay for widening the boulevard to eight lanes.
“Intersections are very different from a link improvement (widening the main roadway),” Crowley said, referring to the wording in the resolution.
11,000 homes anticipated in three communities
To county staff, the commission’s denial means that when traffic becomes so bad that residents demand a wider road, an already costly proposition will become even more costly since no county planning maps required property owners to leave space for the widening.
County officials pointed to traffic projections that show even an eight-lane section of Northlake would not be able to handle the traffic expected in 2035. They singled out traffic from three large communities in various stages of construction: Westlake, Avenir and Indian Trail Groves.
Those three sites have been approved for 11,700 homes and many of the new residents will need Northlake to travel east.
City planners counter that those developments, particularly Westlake and Avenir, will build large amounts of office and retail space. That will capture traffic by reducing the number of people who drive east for a grocery store or doctor’s visit. They also expect the offices and stores to draw eastern workers west, reversing the traditional west-east commute.
Without the adjustment to the map, county plans show no more than six lanes on Northlake from Military Trail to Seminole Pratt Whitney Road, a distance of nearly 12 miles.
‘It’s not Okeechobee’
At the Feb. 1 County Commission meeting, dozens lined up to speak and dozens more submitted cards opposing the proposal. Sal Faso, who heads the North County Neighborhood Coalition, said all 23 communities in the coalition, representing 15,000 residents, opposed the measure.
No one spoke in favor of the proposal.
Residents fought the concept of eight-laning, worried that homes already close to the road would end up even closer with intolerable noise issues and potential loss of property. They feared losing decorative entryways, perimeter walls and deceleration lanes and the potential for a loss of life as the road widening would make it even more difficult for them to get in and out of their communities.
“The character of the area does not align with an eight-lane highway,” said Ibis board member Richard Stein. “It’s not Okeechobee, it’s not Southern. It’s a quiet residential area.”
Derrick Mims, president of The Grande at Ibis Homeowners Association, worried about the road pushing too close to his neighborhood.
“The Grande itself as a community would lose much of its landscape and sound buffer and homes would then find utility lines right outside of their back corners,” he said. “Our homeowners are very concerned about it.”
Residents objected to the county’s plan for treating different portions of Northlake differently. Plans called for four lanes at its western edge at Seminole Pratt Whitney Road to six lanes to eight lanes and then back to six again before reaching Beeline Highway.
County officials say they don’t need more than six lanes along the West Palm Beach Grassy Waters preserve because it’s a straightaway without turns, meaning traffic will move there more smoothly.
But the plan dictated by traffic projections threw residents for a loop.
“If you’re coming out of Ibis on the east side by State Road 7, it’s a death trap. There’s no time to make that right to go east,” said Ibis resident Franklin Prince. “Heaven forbid if you allow four lanes to merge into two or three, there’s gonna be so many accidents.”
“It’s unworkable,” said Ibis resident Gary Alexander.
‘Traffic is coming’
The pristine nature of Grassy Waters, which captures West Palm’s drinking water, hangs over the decision as well.
West Palm Beach officials argued that widening Northlake will produce more stormwater drainage, which could endanger the preserve. They also argued that the county’s plans rely on extending State Road 7 to Northlake, creating a big intersection there. But city lawsuits have blocked the extension, which the state recently delayed for at least five years.
Commissioner Maria Marino, who represents the area, pressed for denial.
“I think eight through lanes is way too many,” she said. “I don’t see the eight-laning as a necessity and from the safety perspective, the more lanes you have, the faster people go.”
But Ricks, the county engineer, said it’s premature to foreclose on that option.
“Traffic is coming,” Ricks said. “If the number of traffic trips do not happen, then that conversation will stop. But if based upon the developments of Westlake and Avenir, things going to where we think it’s going to happen, then by 2030, 2035, there needs to be a decision by the community about just what we do with traffic.
“We’ve got to work together to find a workable solution before it becomes a crisis.”
© 2023 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.