With the addition of several hundred thousand dollars approved this month, the cost of the city’s fight against the State Road 7 extension has mounted to nearly $2.1 million over the past five years.
According to a breakdown provided at The Palm Beach Post’s request, the amount includes more than $1.4 million in attorney fees to law firms Tew Cardenas LLP and Holland & Knight and to former City Attorney Claudia McKenna. An additional $636,000 went for consultants and other costs billed through the lawyers.
County, state and regional agencies have spent decades crafting a route along the western edge of the Grassy Waters Preserve as a reliever for north-south traffic near Royal Palm Beach, The Acreage and surrounding communities. The link is part of a larger, 8.5-mile, $60 million project.
Advocates say the 2-mile link from north of Okeechobee Boulevard to Northlake Boulevard is especially needed because of the thousands of new homes approved or under construction in that part of the county. But West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio and the city commission have fought the project at every step, arguing the city cannot risk a major roadway on the edge of the 23-square-mile nature preserve, which serves as the city’s main water source.
“For us, it’s just critical,” Muoio said last week. “We are very opposed to putting that water in any sort of danger. The threat is significant, from runoff, construction and spills from trucks that might be on the road. … It’s not a risk we’re willing to take and it’s something we’re willing to spend money on to protect.”
Politics plays into the project as well. The proposed path would slip between the preserve and the east side of Ibis, a gated community of 1,750 homes within the city’s northwestern boundary. Ibis residents, who counted Muoio a neighbor until she moved recently, are a high-turnout force in city elections. Residents object to the noise and traffic the road would bring and are concerned it would become a truck route.
Residents to the west argue they need the road to keep traffic from cutting through their neighborhoods.
The city commission voted Feb. 13 to approve $1 million for projects “to enhance, protect and preserve the City of West Palm Beach Watershed.” That included $600,000 to $700,000 for legal fees, part of the $2.1 million total, the mayor said.
State Road 7’s fate is tied up with a number of agencies — regional, state and national.
The South Florida Water Management District has issued a permit for the project. But the city challenged the permit before an administrative law judge in August and is awaiting a decision.
The city also is waiting for the Army Corps of Engineers to decide whether it will permit the project. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, is waiting for the Army Corps to clarify questions it has about the project.
The Florida Department of Transportation, which would oversee the work, has spent $546,000 in outside counsel fees to push back against city resistance over the past five years, a spokesperson said. Palm Beach County has spent more than $100,000 on internal and external legal fees on the matter since June 2016 alone, county officials say.
County Engineer George Webb has argued that the proposed route is the best of more than two dozen studied by various agencies over a decade. The need to minimize environmental impacts has been taken into account, he said, adding that the chosen route provides sufficient land to serve as a buffer.
The route was first identified in the 1950s and has been a source of conflict since at least the early 1990s. A mile-long, two-lane segment, built decades ago, acts as an entry from Northlake Boulevard along Ibis’ eastern edge.
Muoio disagreed that the route takes the environment into account. The city has documented damage from Northlake Boulevard, which cuts through the northern tip of Grassy Waters Preserve, she said.
The original developer of Ibis, E. Llwyd Ecclestone Jr., was forced to destroy 38 acres of wetlands in 1992 to widen Northlake to accommodate traffic generated by Ibis. The state required a campaign to eradicate melaleuca trees in the preserve to make up for the westland loss.
Stormwater runoff from Northlake has leached into the preserve, wildlife habitats have been disrupted and noise and light pollution also harm the natural setting, Muoio said.
The same can be expected if State Road 7 is extended, she said. “We see the harm and can document it and our experts have documented it.”
Have a West Palm Beach news tip? Contact Staff Writer Tony Doris at firstname.lastname@example.org or 561-820-4703.