NEW: West Palm signs deal in attempt to spike SR 7 extension plan

City leaders rejoiced Wednesday at a deal they hope will stymie efforts to extend State Road 7 beside Grassy Waters Preserve, the city’s water source and wildlife sanctuary, by denying the permits needed to let the road runoff flow into the 23-square-mile Everglades offshoot.

In a deal signed in separate meetings of the city and the Northern Palm Beach County Improvement District, the city agreed to pay most of Northern’s cleanup costs for phosphorus contamination from Ibis Golf & Country Club fertilizer. In exchange, Northern agreed to deny permits for the four-mile road extension the state and county want to run between Ibis and the preserve.

That effectively means the state and county can’t build the road there, West Palm Beach officials said.

The deal could cost West Palm Beach, which in recent years paid millions in legal fees to fight the road, $2.9 million more. But when the city commission voted unanimously to approve the deal, Mayor Jeri Muoio had one word: “Yay!”

The deal simultaneously firms up plans to cut in half the fertilizer chemical flowing from Ibis golf course lakes into the preserve, from 40 parts per billion to 20, while killing the road plan, West Palm officials said. City Commissioner Keith James, a vocal opponent of the road who represents that western district, said the prospect of stopping the project left him ready “to enter into my happy dance.”

The city agreed to pay for 85 percent of the cleanup, which could total $3.4 million, while Northern would pay 15 percent. Muoio said Northern’s exposure and that of Ibis residents who are its clients, was much higher than that, had the city gone to trial.

The state and county have been pressing for four decades to build the road to ease congestion that is worsening as thousands of homes spring up west of the city. With all state and federal approvals in hand, the Florida Department of Transportation was scheduled to start construction in July.

State officials familiar with the project could not immediately be reached.

State Rep. Matt Willhite, whose district includes parts of West Palm, Royal Palm Beach, Loxahatchee Groves, Wellington and Haverhill, said the deal disappointed him because it could kill a project that congested western areas need and that was written into county plans 40 years ago. The only alternative routes would put the road through the middle of residential neighborhoods, he said.

“That’s not where a road belongs. That’s like us saying it would be OK if it went through Ibis,” Willhite said.

Palm Beach County Mayor Melissa McKinlay said the city was breaking a promise it made years ago to allow the road extension. “This looks like nothing more than a bribe disguised as a legal settlement,” McKinlay said.

“The city of West Palm Beach was cited by regulators for polluting their own waterway, which was admitted to under oath. The South Florida Water Management District ordered a cleanup,” she said. “West Palm Beach then pointed a finger at the Northern Palm Beach County Improvement District. Knowing that NPBCID holds the State Road 7 drainage permit and knowing that Northern would have to charge an assessment to their taxpayers in the tens of thousands of dollars range, West Palm Beach tells them, ‘We’ll pay you the million dollars-plus of the cleanup cost but only if you terminate the State Road 7 drainage permit. What else was Northern supposed to do?

“It’s a bribe and the city of West Palm Beach once again denies western community residents a safe evacuation route, a reasonable relief to traffic congestion and a long-ago made promise to allow for this road. I should be surprised but I’m not,” McKinlay said.

Muoio said she expects the county and state to litigate. But she added she intends to work with the Florida Department of Transportation to come up with alternative routes.

“Hopefully they’ll just drop it,” Muoio said. “It needs to be somewhere else.”

The city and Northern, in a joint press release, pledged to clean the runoff from Ibis, which has been causing exotics and other unwanted plants to thrive near the outfall into the preserve.

“Like all wetland ecosystems, the City and Northern recognize that the Grassy Waters Preserve is sensitive to nutrients that may be introduced into it as a result of storm water runoff,” the release said. “The City and Northern agree that improvements can always be made that would further enhance the quality of storm water that flows from the Ibis System and ultimately into the Grassy Waters Preserve.”

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