Published On: Fri, Jul 13th, 2012

De ja vu and character too….

By: Al Zucaro

Over the last few months, the city council of Boca Raton has caused me a serious case of de ja vu by reminding me of my twelve or so years in public life in a city to our north, West Palm Beach.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, West Palm Beach saw dramatic change in its character from a small town to a big city; from a quaint community to a center of commerce; and much of it over the objections of the early settlers and some neighborhood associations and leaders.

The recent public debates here in Boca Raton centering mostly on expansion and growth whether by annexation or density are reminiscent of those days in council chambers that changed forever the nature and character of West Palm Beach from the sleepy little town to a place that now invites the outside world to its doorstep.  This invitation supports the need for an ever expanding revenue stream that often seems in contradiction with and at the expense of quality of life items important to those residents who settled for a life style which now may have gone by.

Sound familiar…..

Boca Raton is at that very crossroad.  Influences for residential and commercial development are challenging the notion of downtown Boca Raton as a low density place; a city attractive to those who came and settled in this place due in large part to the limitations contained in Boca Raton’s history and in its character.

Arguments now are for growth through an increase in height and density.  For growth to accommodate the perceived need to expand; to invite the outside world here for commercial, educational, and residential progress; and to ever increase the tax base that provides for the services that expansion requires.

Another similar circumstance to West Palm Beach can be seen in this notion of annexation.  At this year’s financial summit, city council members instructed the manager to investigate annexing up to ten western communities north of Clint Moore Road between Congress Avenue and the Florida Turnpike.  Communities with little or no relationship to the traditional grid pattern envisioned by the city’s founders and so well preserved in the archives of the Boca Raton Historical Society.

Councilman Mike Mullaugh, a resident of a private community, was very vocal in his support of this expansion with the rest of the council appearing passive but interested in the tax revenue producing possibilities.  Councilman Mullaugh argued that the expansion to the tax base outweighs other considerations.  He went on to state that in light of earlier annexations of private communities another such annexation will not affect the character of the city of Boca Raton.

I strongly disagree….

West Palm Beach is the perfect model of why the character of a city will be indelibly changed by a continuing annexation policy towards private and gated communities not conceived or anticipated in the history or tradition of a city.

Yes, there may be increased tax revenues to be gained.  However, it is delusional to think that these revenues will not be of diminishing return over time.  This was dramatically exampled at the financial summit when a private community resident took the microphone and demanded that the medians outside her community be landscaped and beautified, a factor that I am sure was not built into the projected revenue calculation.

West Palm Beach expanded dramatically to the west in the 90s to protect its water catchment area and to expand its tax base with revenues from those large private communities along the Okeechobee Blvd and Northlake Blvd corridors.  Today, the revenues have diminished while unanticipated costs continue to rise.

But….the single greatest aspect of character change to a traditional city that annexes private communities is in the political considerations these communities exert on the city’s politics.

One cannot win an election in West Palm Beach without the support of the private communities.  This will surely be true in Boca Raton as well if the annexation policy as currently anticipated is approved.

A private community, by its very nature, does not have the same considerations as communities on the traditional grid pattern.  Private communities are self contained; they have there own recreational facilities; their own roadways; infrastructure; clubhouses, golf courses and on and on.   Most importantly, they enjoy a competitive advantage at the ballot box.

For convenience, over the years supervisors of elections have placed voting stations within the clubhouses of these communities.  This subtlety provides political advantage to communities which vote in blocks and with ease of access not realized outside the gates.   Current and future politicians soon realize that elections are a numbers game and those voting precincts that produce the most votes get the most attention.

Believe me I know….I represented all the private and gated communities in West Palm Beach and made a science of parlaying that influence into benefits for my communities.

Character really does count…..

Some citizens of Boca Raton have been very vocal in their concerns for managed sustainable growth.  They point to the current posture that downtown Boca Raton is designated a low density community and that there is a piece meal approach to growth currently in play.  They are not wrong and should not be ignored.

Now is the perfect time to have these discussions and conversations.  Now is the time to face the ever increasing need for growth.  Now is the time for our elected leaders to engage the competing groups to take part in the dialogue defining the future for Boca Raton.

This is the perfect time.  No election year politics; no political pandering; and, with no disrespect to the interests of all concerned.

Developer interests should be viewed as good.  So too are quality of life issues important to the residents.  These are not mutually exclusive…
Therefore, I propose the following debate theme for the city of Boca Raton….

In the memorable words of the now infamous former mayor of West Palm Beach, Nancy Graham,

“Congestion is good” or is it????

Al Zucaro

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  1. TWalker says:

    Boca has ordinances that require low density development. To the extent that the current City Council is manipulated by land use attornys who benefit from high density development, the City Council should be voted out of office and charged with ordinance violations. Residents who violate city ordinances are penalized, so why not the City Council members?

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