Our Town with William Kelly: Coastal defense, water supply and zoning review top town agenda for 2021-22 season

William Kelly  |  Our Council  |  Our Town  |  October 22, 2021

October 22, 2021

Mayor Danielle Moore and the Town Council will be taking the long-term view this season – tackling issues likely to affect the quality of life on the island for decades to come.

Top priorities include adoption of a far-reaching plan to defend this barrier island against flood damage caused by rising sea levels.

Also important will be the selection of a drinking water source for the town after 2029, when its 30-year supply agreement with the City of West Palm Beach ends.

Moore, council members and staff also have launched a top-to-bottom review of the zoning code, which officials say is outdated and out of step with the building characteristics that make Palm Beach unique.

“The health, safety and welfare of our town and its residents continues to be challenged by drinking water [quality] issues, rising sea levels and considerable growth in neighboring cities and in our town,” Council President Margaret Zeidman said.

Coastal Resilience

This year Woods Hole Group, the town’s coastal engineering consultant, delivered a long-awaited report with recommendations on how to strengthen island defenses against flooding associated with rising sea levels.

“Combating sea level rise requires a multi-year approach,” Town Manager Kirk Blouin said.

The 91-page report focuses primarily on the low-lying Lake Worth Lagoon side of the island, which is already prone to flooding.

Woods Hole recommends raising seawalls, bulkheads, building elevations and even studying the feasibility of installing a flood gate at the Port of Palm Beach inlet.

Elevating the seawalls and bulkheads will involve many different property owners, so public-private partnerships are likely to be necessary to get the job done.

“They have given us a very comprehensive and strategic plan with short-term, mid-term and long-term strategies to mitigate against flooding,” Blouin said of Woods Hole. “There are tough decisions our elected officials are going to have to make, including what the [implementation] triggers are and how they’re going to pay for it.”

Woods Hole President Bob Hamilton will talk about what coastal resilience means for Palm Beach when he addresses the Palm Beach Civic Association’s Welcome Back Community Forum at 4 p.m. on Nov. 8 at the Royal Poinciana Chapel. Moore will also attend.

Water Supply

Town engineering consultant Kimley-Horn & Associates’ report on future water supply options is expected before the council in November or December.

Options include striking a new agreement with West Palm Beach, buying water from a different provider, developing a town-owned water source, or taking a public-private hybrid approach, Public Works Director Paul Brazil has said.

Other potential providers include Palm Beach County, Lake Worth Beach, Riviera Beach or a private provider, officials have said.

If the town doesn’t stay with West Palm Beach, then the current agreement calls for the town to assume ownership of the water distribution system on the island after October 2029.

Potential ownership of the water lines creates possibilities for the town that haven’t been there in the past. But going with any other water provider will mean building new infrastructure to move that water into the town. That would require time and money to build, Brazil said.

Meanwhile, questions about the safety and quality of West Palm Beach’s water supply have arisen since May, when the city reported that cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, had contaminated its drinking water.

The city has since expanded testing of its water supply and pledged to share those results with the town. The city also appointed an expert water panel to recommend short-term and long-term options for improving water treatment methods. The panel’s recommendations are expected early next year.

Councilwoman Bobbie Lindsay said renewing the town’s water source is one of the most critical decisions before the council. She said the town must weigh all options.

“That doesn’t mean that we won’t go with West Palm Beach,” she said. “What it does mean is that we look at it very carefully. The objective is to have a reliable, clean water source for the foreseeable future.”

Zoning Code Review

Officials say the zoning code is a bewildering patchwork of regulations that must be simplified. A more modern code will be easier for applicants to understand and will help streamline review processes at Town Hall, Zoning Director Wayne Bergman has said.

Moore and council members said the code needs to protect the small-town feel of Palm Beach in the face of explosive growth in neighboring West Palm Beach and redevelopment pressures within the town.

The problem is most noticeable in the North End, because of the greater massing of new houses relative to the size of their lots and setbacks from neighbors.

Officials say they are hearing from residents who are upset about losing the character and charm of their streets and neighborhoods.

“We are a fully developed community,” Lindsay said recently. “We don’t want ‘mansionization.’ We keep saying it, over and over again. But somehow we’re not effectively dealing with this.”

New homes are being built with higher ground-floor elevations to meet modern building standards and FEMA flood zone requirements. This also impacts neighbors who live in older houses at lower elevations, Moore said.

Moore said the town needs to provide more incentives for owners to build one-story dwellings. But she said the existing code isn’t flexible enough for young families who may be forced to build a two-story house to have room for a two-car garage and three bedrooms to meet their needs.

New Town Marina

Other important developments of the 2021-22 season include the conclusion of a $38 million renovation of the Town Marina. The new facility opens Nov. 1 with floating docks, larger slips and upgraded electrical and security systems. The marina parking lot and adjacent Lake Drive Park have also been redesigned.

Final touches including the installation of park benches and planters will be done in time for the Dec. 9 ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the new marina, Deputy Town Manager Jay Boodheshwar said.

“The beautiful new park, coupled with the stunning yachts docked in the new marina, will create the perfect environment for the highly anticipated ribbon-cutting event,” he said.

North Fire Station

Reconstruction of the North Fire Station will begin this season, officials said. The 94-year-old station has a leaky roof and structural issues. Mold intrusion was discovered in the building last summer, prompting the council to accelerate the reconstruction schedule to begin a few years earlier than had been planned.

Reconstruction is budgeted at $5.5 million and expected to take 18-24 months to complete, Brazil said recently.

The project will be reviewed by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The fire station was designed by Clark J. Lawrence and built in 1927. It was landmarked in 1988.

One of three fire stations in town, the North Fire Station is responsible for fire-rescue missions from Royal Poinciana Way to the northern tip of the island.

During the reconstruction, an interim north fire station will be established immediately north of the existing station on the asphalt pavement on Wells Road. One of several sites evaluated for the interim station, the Wells Road site will be the least costly and the least disruptive because neighbors are used to having a fire station on their street, Brazil said.

Strategic Plan

The council recently assigned Moore to lead development of a new long-term strategic plan for the town. Moore said she would like to develop the plan based on the same model as the last one, developed under the leadership of her mother, then-Mayor Lesly Smith. Smith chaired a five-member Strategic Planning Board that dissolved after its plan was accepted by the council in 2003. The plan was comprehensive with an outlook of 10 years or longer.

Smith and the council are developing a list of study ideas and potential members of a new Strategic Planning Board to be chaired by Moore.

Moore said the new board would probably complete its plan and present it for council approval in April 2023.

“The highest priority is to control building construction in the North End,” she said.

Town Caucus and election

The two-year terms of Lindsay, Zeidman and Councilman Lew Crampton expire in March. All three have filed to seek additional terms in the March 8 town election.

So far, no opposition has emerged. The deadline for candidates to qualify to run for office is the Dec. 7 Town Caucus, which starts at 5 p.m. at Town Hall.

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