Want to effect change? Show up.
That’s the message given by local and state officials at two recent public gatherings. One: A workshop to review potential changes to Southern Boulevard/State Road 80. The other: Monday night’s village council meeting, where hundreds of residents made their voices heard in opposition to proposals they said would threaten their safety, property values and way of life.
At the village council meeting, which went into Tuesday morning, hundreds of residents showed up and spoke up to oppose developer Glenn Straub’s proposals for his golf courses at Palm Beach Polo Golf and Country Club and at Polo West. While Straub and his attorney, Alec Domb, argued in favor of additional access points and uses at each property to keep the golf courses viable, residents by the dozens said the costs would outweigh the benefits.
And while some residents toed the line of unruliness — a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office deputy had to ask one man to sit down when he went past his allotted three minutes for public comment — council members seemed in awe of the sheer number of people before them.
“I am extremely grateful to all of the participation,” said Councilman Michael Drahos, adding that council members received handwritten letters and scores of emails. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a stack of (comment) cards that high,” he said.
Neil Schiller, attorney for the Palm Beach Polo Property Owners Association and a veteran of public hearings, said he also had never seen anything like the turnout. “They heard us, they heard our concerns,” Schiller said.
Speaking to me after the meeting, Domb also acknowledged the power of the crowd.
“You know, considering that there were so many people out here, and the pressure continued to be on them to, I guess, comply with the requests of the citizenry as elected officials, I understand why they did what they did,” he said. “But after eight months and $30,000 in application fees, going through staff, getting their approval … and having it turned down was a little annoying, I guess would be the best way to put it.”
A different type of public participation took place at the Southern Boulevard workshop last week in Wellington, where residents were encouraged to place stickers on the option they preferred for moving traffic most efficiently along the corridor.
The options were the result of a two-year study by the Florida Department of Transportation of State Road 80 from South Bay to West Palm Beach. Any construction could be another decade out, a state planner told me.
Some residents I spoke with were stumped. They stood with a strip of colorful adhesive dots in one hand and the other hand inevitably on a hip or at their chin as they considered these alternatives:
One: Widen six-lane Southern to eight lanes from Binks Forest Drive to Royal Palm Beach Boulevard. Between Royal Palm Beach Boulevard and Congress Avenue, change intersections to an alternative format, where left turns are completed past the intersection and intersections themselves are straight-through or right-turn only. Create a multi-use path on the south side of Southern.
Two: Also widen Southern to eight lanes from Binks to Royal Palm Beach Boulevard. But moving east to Congress, create a six-lane higher-speed mainline with two lanes of frontage road on each side. Where Southern meets Forest Hill Boulevard use an intersection format where left turns are completed past the intersection. Create paths for walkers, joggers and bicyclists on the south side of Southern.
Three: Widen Southern to eight lanes from Binks to Forest Hill Boulevard. From Forest Hill to Congress, build a four-lane, elevated highway above a six-lane frontage road system. The elevated highway would have limited access and require less right-of-way than option two. It also would allow for a continuous, protected bike lane along the road.
Royal Palm Beach Vice Mayor Jeff Hmara was among those challenged by the decision. While he described all three alternatives as “viable,” he was disappointed there was not a mass-transit option, such as light rail. “I was hoping for something more innovative,” he said.
Still, he hoped the three options could help Palm Beach County “get out ahead” of the massive growth coming to the western communities. “Each one of these will move more cars,” he said. “That’s a good thing.”
Cesar Martinez, FDOT project manager, said alternatives two and three have received strong support. People at the workshops asked him about noise studies, environmental impacts — all important questions that will be addressed if the project moves forward.
And all good reasons for residents to remain engaged.
While Wellington residents saw results early in the wee hours Tuesday and results are further out for those interested in possible changes to Southern, both are examples of why resident involvement is vital to thriving western communities.