Could battle over road extension cost Ibis homeowners millions?


Cleaning tainted sediment from Ibis retention ponds could cost an estimated $40 million.

West Palm Beach’s efforts to prevent an extension of State Road 7 near the Ibis Golf & Country Club could cost Ibis’ 1,800 homeowners more than $40 million in pollution clean-up costs, and possibly lead to costs for other communities that feed storm water into Grassy Waters Preserve.

That’s an estimate by officials of the Northern Palm Beach County Improvement District, a water management agency that would be responsible for cleaning Ibis’ lakes and charging homeowners. In addition, the city itself could be on the hook for additional millions, to clean the 300-plus-acre Ibis retention marsh that filters the outflow from the lakes and which, in turn, pours into Grassy Waters.

In arguing its case against the State Road 7 extension, did West Palm put itself in a bind?

The entire cleanup, if it comes to pass, comes under the heading of unintended consequences.

The city is fighting the four-mile extension on a number of legal fronts, asserting that road runoff would contaminate the adjacent nature preserve, the city of 100,000’s main water supply.

As proof, it stated in public filings that herbicide- and fertilizer-laden runoff from Ibis already is contaminating parts of the 23-square-mile preserve, near where the road would go. That prompted the South Florida Water Management District, the agency that approved the road, to order the city and Northern to clean up the system.

The city, in turn, is fighting the road permit and the cleanup order, saying Northern should clean up the lakes at the same time that it cleans the retention marsh, known as Ibis Preserve.

South Florida Water Management District’s general counsel says that West Palm Beach just wants to stop the road and brought up the Ibis contamination issue as a delay strategy. If the city’s concern was contamination, it would already be working to clean up its own contamination, not worrying about the State Road 7 project, which has land buffers and other environmental protections built into its plans, attorney John Fumero said.

Northern’s executive director, for his part, said his agency stands ready and willing to clean up the community’s lake system and work with the city but so far has no evidence its runoff is polluted. Even so, to try to head off a prolonged and expensive legal fight, Northern has submitted cleanup plans to the Water Management District for review and has received initial approvals, Executive Director O’Neal Bardin Jr. said this week.

If testing showed that nutrients from fertilizers and and copper sulfate from herbicides were floating up from lake sediments and into the water system, removing the sediment could cost $30 million to $40 million, Bardin estimated — as much as $22,000 per homeowner. But no testing has been done to determine whether that’s happening, he said, and photos show no signs of exotic or other unwanted vegetation inside Ibis that might indicate a water quality problem.

The city’s contamination claim, made in legal proceedings against the South Florida Water Management District, blind-sided his agency, which maintains the lakes, Bardin said. As a result of the claim, Northern has hired a limnologist, or inland water scientist, to study the Ibis lakes for signs of contamination, he said.

Up to this point, Northern thought Ibis, its lakes and filtration marsh looked pristine, he said. If the city had called about a problem, Northern would have addressed it, he added. “We’ve been doing everything we thought was reasonable and appropriate.”

He added that the city, by contrast, has been holding the level of Grassy Waters so high that it flows over a concrete control weir and exchanges water with what’s in the Ibis filtration area.

On Thursday, Northern’s board of directors authorized their attorney, Brian Joslyn, to enter the legal fray when he deems it necessary.

West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio declined comment on the legal battle, reiterating her sincerity about protecting Grassy Waters but saying it would be inappropriate to try the case in the press.

A message left for the Ibis property owners association president was not returned. Joslyn said “they’re well aware” of the situation. “They’re very concerned and are interested in the cheapest possible resolution,” he told the Northern board.

West Palm Beach has spent nearly $2.1 million during the past five years in legal and consulting fees to fight the roadway, which would enable cars to travel from Okeechobee Boulevard to Northlake Boulevard, as part of a larger, 8.5-mile, $60 million project.

County, state and regional agencies spent decades deciding upon a route along the western edge of Grassy Waters as a reliever for north-south traffic near Royal Palm Beach, The Acreage and surrounding communities. Thousands more homes are planned off Northlake, where rush hour gridlock already is common.

Northern officials say the legal battle could lead to contamination testing at other communities that have outflows into Grassy Waters, for comparison — opening the possibility that they, too, would face clean-up costs. These would include Riverwalk, Baywinds and Andros Isle, off Okeechobee Boulevard, and Ironhorse Country Club, off North Jog Road.

Assistant City Administrator Scott Kelly said these developments only pump into Grassy Waters during times of extreme rainfall and would be unlikely to contaminate the preserve.

But these communities and others throughout Florida use the same kind of storm water filtration system, Bardin said. “They’re all over the place.”

Attorney Joslyn told Northern’s board that it’s in their best financial interest to avoid a legal fray but he wasn’t optimistic.

“We want to do a Kumbaya but we’re not getting a response from the city,” he said. “It is possible we’re going to come up with a constructive, cooperative settlement. It’s also possible I’m going to be eaten by a dragon.”

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