Transportation panel picks interim director, rips ‘tortured’ selection process as ‘debacle’

Just seven viable candidates apply for $200,000-a-year job after national search.

EDITOR’S NOTE: On Thursday July 21, the full board of the Transportation Planning Agency voted unanimously to hire Valerie Neilson as executive director. Commissioner Maria Marino was absent.

It’s not often that a public-sector job paying nearly $200,000 attracts just seven viable candidates after a national search. It’s even rarer that two of the three finalists are dismissed outright after vigorous, public questioning.

But that’s where the five-member panel selecting the next person to head the Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency, which oversees billions in transportation projects countywide, found itself Thursday afternoon.

The panel, featuring two north county representatives — Palm Beach Gardens Mayor Chelsea Reed and Palm Beach County Commissioner Maria Marino — waffled between selecting the agency’s interim director, who almost got the job in December without a search, or leaving the agency in limbo for months by reposting the job. 

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Trump Corner yields to DeSantis Depot amid costly turn-lane construction

County to shell out $1.17 million for about a fifth of an acre and to reconfigure Publix parking lot.

The county has agreed to pay more than $1.1 million for the narrow strip of land needed to add a right turn lane on the well-known Trump Corner rally spot at PGA Boulevard and Military Trail, nearly doubling the project cost. 

Meanwhile, the Trump rallies that thrust the corner into the spotlight both before and after the 2020 election have been silenced by dirt mounds and barricades, but not for long, organizer Willy Guardiola vowed. 

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New race track? Rejected PBIR bidder to announce Martin County site

Formula Race Promotions, with Indy champ Danny Sullivan, says it will reveal location of massive complex in early June.

A racing group that includes one time Indy 500 champion Danny Sullivan says it will unveil plans in June for a massive racetrack complex on 900 acres in Martin County to replace the now-shuttered Palm Beach International Raceway.

The group, Formula Race Promotions headed by Al Guibord, tried but failed to buy the 175-acre PBIR, which is under contract to warehouse-builder Portman Industrial. 

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Judge puts brakes on Gardens mobility fee

Judge Gillman grants injunction requiring city to turn over millions from developer payments; appeal possible and full trial awaits.

Palm Beach Gardens’ effort to pay for growth through a mobility fee suffered a setback Thursday when a Palm Beach County Circuit Court judge ruled that the city’s approach violated state law. 

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Who will represent Palm Beach Gardens? Are two state House members better than one?

Is it better to have two state House members and two state senators answering to the same community? Or does that water down representation? Gardens will soon find out.

Some of the biggest western communities in Palm Beach Gardens, including PGA National, Mirasol and Avenir, would be severed from the city and lumped into a sprawling state House district spanning the Glades and The Acreage, under a House map approved Feb. 3. 

Those same communities, plus Old Palm and Ballenisles, would be separated from the city in a Senate map change that would replace the city’s lone state senator, Bobby Powell, with two. 

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Fix for PGA flyover logjam on fast track

A $7.2 million infusion from the American Rescue Plan moves up construction at PGA Boulevard and Interstate 95 by two years.

The daily traffic snarl on PGA Boulevard at Interstate 95 took a significant step toward easing Thursday with the act of a local transportation planning agency.

State plans to improve traffic flow on the perpetually stalled southbound I-95 entrance ramp moved up two years with an infusion of $7.2 million from the American Rescue Plan approved by Congress in March.

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Housing affordability crisis: ‘A fundamental business issue’

Palm Beach North Chamber panel explores what has to be done to make sure ‘the people you see every day’ can afford to live here.

As housing prices rise and supply dips, it’s becoming harder and harder for essential workers like nurses, teachers and police to find places to live in northern Palm Beach County.

That makes it harder for businesses to find employees.

And that’s one way that the area’s housing affordability crisis affects everyone, agreed four panelists Wednesday at the Palm Beach North Chamber’s “Business Before Hours” breakfast at the Embassy Suites hotel.

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Inside the courtroom: How to pay for roads to keep up with growth

Palm Beach Gardens argues in five-day trial that plans for more density require alternatives to the automobile.

In a five-day trial that drilled deep into concerns over how governments charge developers for the impacts of their projects, lawyers for Palm Beach Gardens and Palm Beach County hashed out what could be the future of growth management countywide.

At issue in the first stage of a lawsuit the county filed against the city on May 18 is whether a county system in place since the late 1980s can withstand pressure from cities looking to allow more dense developments and to free residents from reliance on cars.

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Top 200 Taxpayers: Why a vacant lot is worth more than The Breakers

Palm Beach Gardens has 16 of the 200 most valuable properties in Palm Beach County, with Gardens Mall ranked second, behind only the Boca Town Center Mall.

In the rarefied air of the 200 largest taxable properties in Palm Beach County sits an empty lot.

Ah, but what an empty lot.

Hedge fund manager Ken Griffin’s vacant 12 oceanfront acres on Palm Beach make up the third-most valuable property in Palm Beach County, valued for tax purposes at $223 million.

That’s a higher taxable value than The Breakers hotel, JFK Medical Center and Florida Power & Light Co.’s Juno Beach headquarters. 

The only individual properties with higher values? The Boca Raton and Palm Beach Gardens malls.

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EXCLUSIVE: ‘Blessed’ ground of Trump Corner to undergo conversion

Will construction break up Gardens’ hotspot for Trump rallies?

It’s “blessed” ground.

Trump Corner, the space outside the Publix shopping center in Palm Beach Gardens where local resident Willy Guardiola draws hundreds of Trump supporters for weekly rallies, has been sprinkled with holy water and suffused in prayer. 

It’s blessed in practical ways as well, with abundant parking, helpful police and a supportive landlord. 

“It’s the best location in the entire county,” Guardiola says.

But this fall the corner of Military Trail and PGA Boulevard is going to be ripped up in a $1.3 million county construction project to add a right-turn lane.

And construction is expected to last about 10 months, meaning that 13-foot wide strip along southbound Military Trail will be off limits as the race for Florida governor heats up. 

“It’s going to kill us,” Guardiola said when informed of the county’s road construction plan. “That’s where I’m going to hold all my DeSantis rallies.”

Trump Corner
A quiet Thursday in June at Trump Corner at PGA Boulevard and Military Trail in Palm Beach Gardens. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

‘A captive audience’

Once construction is done, as the 2024 presidential election looms, the corner will have shrunk. It’s not exactly huge now. The lawn pitches sharply upward from the sidewalk leading to a flower bed and shrubs surrounding the brick-bordered sign proclaiming Garden Square Shoppes.

Guardiola, president of Christian on a Mission, loves it because of ample parking nearby but when more than 1,000 flag-waving Trump supporters show up the patch of grass and sidewalk outside the Bank of America branch fills fast.

For political purposes, the long wait drivers endure to turn right is a plus —”a captive audience,” Guardiola calls them.

“It could be positive or it could be negative. If it’s Trump people, it could be great,” he said. When it’s anti-Trumpers, the former college basketball referee urges supporters to ignore catcalls and say nothing.

Rallies open with prayer

He credits the peaceful nature of the corner, which began hosting Trump rallies in June 2016, to police presence and prayer. 

At the start of each rally, usually held at 4:30 p.m. on Fridays, a friend from his church blesses the site with holy water. The group recites a prayer. 

Willy Guardiola
Willy Guardiola, right, with fellow Trump backer Lou Marin of Orlando, at a Trump birthday bash they organized at Southern Boulevard and Interstate 95 on June 14, 2021. (Provided by Willy Guardiola)

“We’ve never had an incident,” he said. “It’s the holy water. It’s prayer. … Police and prayer.”

Before the 2016 Trump campaign, the corner often drew local sign-wavers on election day. But Guardiola believes the colorful Trump rallies have usurped that old identity. “We went big. This is national. It isn’t local,” he said. “It sets the tone for the state of Florida.”

That help explains his reaction in September, after Democrats began holding Wednesday rallies on Trump Corner to counter his Friday rallies. 

“This isn’t just any intersection. I mean this is Trump corner. It’s got a name. It’s nationally known,” Guardiola told CBS-12. “And for another group to come out here, it’s just a lack of respect. I’ll say it over and over again. I would never do that to anybody.” 

Democrats were aghast.

“I can’t believe you think this corner is yours. This is public property,” former Gardens Mayor Eric Jablin, a Democrat who helped organize the rallies, said this week. “They’re getting their just rewards (with the construction) as far as I’m concerned.”

Strip of land costs $386,000

Trump Corner
A right-turn lane is planned for this strip along Military Trail at Trump Corner in Palm Beach Gardens. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

The county engineer in charge of the project said she had never heard of Trump Corner and the corner’s political calling card had nothing to do with the decision to add the turn lane. The need came up in routine traffic reviews, said Kathleen Farrell, the county’s assistant director for roadway production, and the wheels of government began turning. 

The county sued the owners of the Garden Square Shoppes, Jan Real Estate, in December to seize a 355-foot long strip that amounts to about a fifth of an acre. In April, a Palm Beach County Circuit judge approved the county’s bottom line offer, $386,370, for the 13-foot wide strip and an adjoining 6 feet. Jan Real Estate  can challenge the valuation and go to trial if it believes it is due more money. 

UNDER CONSTRUCTION: What’s that mammoth building rising at PGA and I-95?

FIXING I-95: State has a plan to ease PGA Boulevard backups

Work will include new curb, gutter and sidewalk, a retaining wall and relocation of overhead electric lines, underground pipes and traffic signal mast arms.

Five bids came in on June 1, ranging from $1.26 million to $1.71 million. The winning bidder must be approved by the Palm Beach County Commission, expected in September or October, before construction can begin.  

The county originally estimated the job would take 150 days but with material shortages caused by the pandemic it increased the time to 300 days.

That means if work begins in November, it could last until the end of August. 

Guardiola said he would show up to contest the plan. 

“I will be there to stake my claim. This has been our corner for five years.”

© 2021 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.

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