Our Town with William Kelly: Water, traffic and development pressures loom large in town’s future

William Kelly  |  Our Town  |  January 21, 2022

A new board, whose mission is to chart a future course for the town, began work Thursday when members pointed to the challenges and uncertainties on Palm Beach’s horizon.

Worsening traffic congestion, explosive development and population growth in neighboring West Palm Beach, and intensive residential construction are all compromising the quality of life on the island, members agreed. Environmental concerns, including the need to secure a safe and reliable long-term supply of drinking water, are also considered to be critical.

“There are gobs more people here now than last year at this time,” said Mayor Danielle Moore, who chairs the new Strategic Planning Board. “I’ve never seen worse traffic in 50-some years.”

The nine-member panel is charged with developing a strategic plan with a five-year outlook. With help from staff and a planning consultant, it is expected to examine life in Palm Beach from all angles, gathering and analyzing demographics and other data before drafting a plan for Town Council approval in April 2023.

Assistant Town Manager Carolyn Stone said that, once long-term goals are identified and a strategy is developed for their attainment, daily management practices can be examined to determine if they are consistent with the strategic objectives.

Moore nominated and the council approved the other eight board members in December. They are Alfred “Skip” Aldridge, Elizabeth Dowdle, Kristin Kelly Fisher, Nicki McDonald, Peter McKelvy, Katherine Ostberg, Michael Pucillo and Michael Reiter.

Each member has a background in strategic planning, whether through the government, corporate, non-profit or academic worlds, Deputy Town Manager Jay Boodheshwar said.

At Thursday’s introductory meeting, held virtually because of the pandemic, Moore asked each member for his or her perspective.

Aldridge, who is co-chairman of the Citizens’ Association of Palm Beach, whose membership is based in the South End, said residents there are concerned about sea level rise along the town’s Lake Worth shore. Traffic congestion and pedestrian safety are also top concerns, he said.

Dowdle, whose background is in environmental conservation and town planning, spoke of protecting Palm Beach’s architectural heritage, civic-minded culture and small-town charm and pedestrian feel.

She also cited environmental protection as a priority. Bacterial contamination has compromised the safety of the town’s drinking water supply and forced the closure of town beaches in recent years. The overuse of synthetic chemicals in town is contributing to a “worldwide insect apocalypse,” she said.

Fisher, a preservationist experienced with non-profit organizations, said the town should look for external examples of best practices – “what other towns are doing that are great and that we might want to incorporate.”

McDonald, experienced with fashion and interior design, and an alternate member of the Planning and Zoning Commission, cited regional population growth, residential redevelopment challenges and the need for a water supply after the town’s water contract with West Palm Beach expires in 2029.

McKelvy, a retired media executive, said he’s concerned about how large-scale population growth in West Palm Beach will affect the island. “People from West Palm Beach will want to come to the beach,” he said. “They are public beaches. How do we manage visitors?”

Water, construction and zoning protections are also important to Palm Beach’s quality of life, he said.

Ostberg, an architect with an interest in planning and preservation, said she’s concerned about water, traffic and the impacts of future technological trends and West Palm Beach growth.

“West Palm Beach was an unrealized area for so long,” she said. “It will now become a wall of buildings. Is there an opportunity to identify what we want that relationship to be?”

Pucillo, an attorney and former Town Council president, said it’s important for the Strategic Planning Board to have a clear sense of its mission and how its role might intersect with that of the council and zoning commission, which are tackling the water supply and residential development issues.

The expiration of its water contract with West Palm Beach in 2029 puts the town in a critical position, Pucillo said. The town has a narrow window through which to act should it decide to develop its own water treatment plant, he said.

Widespread residential construction, traffic, pesticides and the need for home rule – the ability of local governments to regulate the issues that affect them – are all problems affecting the town, he said.

Reiter, a former town police chief and founder of a security firm based in the town, said the water supply and public safety are major concerns.

Intensive development in West Palm Beach is changing the way of life in the town as it becomes increasingly difficult to move to and from Palm Beach to the airport and hospitals across the bridges, he said.

The town needs better demographic data to fully understand changes in its population, Reiter said. Census data doesn’t reflect the hordes of hotel guests, beach visitors, service personnel and part-time residents that descend upon the town during winter.

“We have to admit we really are no longer a small town,” Reiter said. “I’d like to know if we have a way to discern how many residents we have.”

The board will meet monthly. Its members are subject to state opening meetings law, which prohibits them from communicating with one another privately about the business before the board, Boodheshwar said.

Trainnovations, the board’s planning consultant, is based in Palm Beach County with 27 years of experience working with local governments. Its involvement is scheduled to begin with the board’s next meeting at 9 a.m. on Feb. 22.

This will be the town’s first strategic plan since an earlier one was developed and adopted by a previous council in 2003. That plan, which was updated in 2012, addressed police and fire protection, health care, storm drainage, emergency management and the management of commercial and residential development, beaches, finances and more.

It was developed by an earlier strategic planning board led by then-Mayor Lesly Smith, who is Moore’s mother.

“This is sort of a legacy project for me,” Moore said.

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