County, West Palm spar over State Road 7, Okeechobee business district

Sept 07, 2018
A small alligator at Grassy Waters Preserve. (Bruce R. Bennett / The Palm Beach Post)

Palm Beach County officials have fired back at their counterparts in West Palm Beach over two major, local projects with a countywide impact: The extension of State Road 7, which the city is against, and the creation of the Okeechobee Business District, which the county wants to temporarily suspend.

Related: NEW: Okeechobee Business District approved — what it means for West Palm

The debates over the two projects raise familiar issues related to traffic and density. But they also bring in new, hot-button issues. In the State Road 7 squabble, the city has raised the specter of the algae bloom that has cast a toxic cloud over the region’s environment.

Of the two disputes, the Okeechobee Business District seems the more resolvable in the short-run.

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The district, which has been in the works for about 18 months, will encourage office and hotel construction along Okeechobee Boulevard from CityPlace to Flagler Drive, the city says.

The West Palm Beach City Commission approved moving forward with the district in August. The county, Palm Beach and the Florida Department of Transportation wanted a state traffic study done before the city moved forward.

The state’s Department of Economic Opportunity signed off on the project but the county recently filed a challenge with DOE, which is expected to make a decision this month.

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County administrator Verdenia Baker said the opposition is not to the project in principle, but rather to make sure it is carried out in an orderly fashion.

“I am clear that growth is going to occur… I have no issue with the vibrant downtown West Palm Beach. I am all for that that. It helps with our economy here in Palm Beach County as a whole,” Baker said. “My concern is we have no idea what the impact is going to be and that we need to work together to ensure that whatever is built in downtown that we have the appropriate infrastructure in place to handle the impact.”

West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio has said the plan would actually reduce what could be built in that area under current rules. Officials also have said new developments within the district would have to abide by rules encouraging mass transit and alternative forms of transportation.

The resolution of the State Road 7 extension, which has been planned for decades and would cut near the city’s Grassy Waters Preserve, is a trickier proposition.

Related: Court gives West Palm another shot at opposing State Road 7 work

Map Photo: Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

An appeals court in August ruled in favor of the city’s fight against the extension. The county asked for a rehearing and clarification, but was denied. The case will go back to an administrative law judge for a new hearing.

The county is stuck “sitting on the sidelines,” said Baker, while the extension issue plays out in the courts.

West Palm Beach argues that by extending State Road 7 from 60th Street to Northlake Boulevard, road runoff will threaten the city’s main water supply, the Grassy Waters Preserve.

“All over the state, people are dealing with algae blooms and water quality issues and we have one of the most pristine water bodies in the state. If we let that nutrient level rise and discharge into Grassy Waters, we’re going to be talking about algae blooms in our water supply,” Muoio told The Palm Beach Post in August.

But the county, with the Florida Department of Transportation as its partner, argues that the road is an evacuation route and needs to be extended to accommodate the growth in the Northlake Boulevard area.

Baker said extending the road will not affect the city’s water quality.

“What I understand is that the roadway will be at least three football fields in length away from their Grassy Waters. If there is ever a catastrophic accident and horrible things happen it will have a ways to go to filter before it gets to Grassy Waters and even after Grassy Waters it still has a way to go before it gets to downtown Australian to be filtered and protected,” Baker said. “So I don’t take it lightly, the water issue. It is something we’re all concerned with. But we also pass their main drinking water source on Australian (Avenue) and Okeechobee (Boulevard) everyday.”

The state received approvals it needed to start construction, but the city in June penned a deal with the Northern Palm Beach County Improvement District to deny a storm water permit for the proposed extension, stalling it. Then, in August, the Fourth District Court of Appeal rescinded a South Florida Water Management District permit that approved the extension. That’s when the county and FDOT — the SFWMD didn’t want to participate, according to the county attorney — asked for a rehearing and was denied. The issue is expected to be sent back this month to an administrative law judge.