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Our Town with William Kelly: Palm Beach voices concerns about Port of Palm Beach expansion

Palm Beach’s elected officials told a Port of Palm Beach consultant this week that the town remains firmly opposed to any plan to widen and deepen the port’s navigation channel.

Kerry Simpson, a vice president with Moffatt & Nichol, the port’s consultant, updated the Town Council at its meeting Tuesday on the port’s 20-year draft master plan. The plan calls for expanding the port’s infrastructure to accommodate growth in container cargo and cruise passenger traffic.

It does not explicitly mention deepening or widening the channel, which runs through the Lake Worth Inlet between Singer Island and Palm Beach. But it also does not appear to rule that out, Palm Beach officials pointed out.

Mayor Danielle Moore and Town Council members said a deeper and larger navigation channel, with larger ships passing through, would be detrimental to the environment and to the town, where North End residents already experience light and noise pollution from port activities.

A deeper and wider inlet channel would also make Palm Beach’s lakeshore properties more vulnerable to flooding from storm surges, Council President Margaret Zeidman said.

Councilwoman Bobbie Lindsay is a former leader of the Save Our Inlet Coalition, which successfully blocked a port plan to enlarge the shipping channel about 10 years ago.

“Widening and deepening the inlet to let larger ships in, like we have heard before – those are the things we are tremendously concerned about,” Lindsay told Simpson. “I’m really happy to see that’s not there” in the plan.

A deeper and wider channel would be bad for seagrasses, marine life, recreation and ecotourism, Lindsay said.

“This lagoon is the last one like it on Florida’s East Coast,” she said. “It has ecological diversity. There’s diving and snorkeling. It is a treasure that the entire county is going to defend. More people boat in this area than anywhere else in the county.”

The port, which occupies 165 acres in Riviera Beach, offers container cargo and passenger cruise services. Port officials are looking to expand, but the existing infrastructure limits operations. Cargo and cruise passenger traffic could reach capacity in 2026 and 2028, respectively, Simpson said.

The port is looking to add 18 acres for cargo operations. The plan also includes cruise berth, terminal and parking improvements designed to boost cruise ship capacity to 700,000 passengers annually instead of the current 400,000 per year.

The port, with assistance from Moffatt & Nichol, completed a redraft of its master plan on June 3. A final public meeting on the plan was held June 27 in Riviera Beach. A 30-day public comment period ends July 27. Simpson said the master plan will be revised based on the public comment.

“It’s an ambitious plan,” Moore told Simpson. “How much do you think it will cost? $100 million? $200 million?”

“It could easily run into the hundreds of millions,” he replied.

Simpson said the growth doesn’t necessarily mean larger ships. “It could mean more ships rather than larger ships,” he said.

“More traffic means more noise in the North End,” Moore replied.

Council President Margaret Zeidman said the port’s plan would benefit Palm Beach County and provide jobs for West Palm Beach. But it would not be beneficial to Palm Beach and other neighboring communities including Palm Beach Shores.

“I would say you have a grandiose plan and a lot of magical thinking,” she told Simpson. “This is not something that is good for us. I would just like to see what happens when the environmentalists get hold of this.”

Most of the port’s business is in cargo. It is essentially a niche port providing goods that are important to the Bahamas and the Caribbean, Lindsay pointed out.

But the port is enjoying success with its 722-foot Margaritaville at Sea cruise ship, Simpson said, adding, “There is potential for them to double that market.”

Lindsay asked for clarification from Simpson about the size of the cruise ships the port wishes to attract.
“At the June 27 [public] meeting, you stated that you wanted to bring in 1,000-foot and 1,100-foot cruise ships into this port,” Lindsay said. “Has that changed?”

Simpson said he was referring to a study and “site condition assessment,” and that the master plan doesn’t call for attracting ships of that size.

The long-term opportunity for cruise ship passenger growth is “very challenging,” he said. “Their cruise terminal would have to be doubled in size … they would have to capture a lot the market.”

Councilwoman Julie Araskog said North End residents are concerned about noise from the port. A greater influx of tourists from the cruise ships could lead to more visitors in Palm Beach, worsening congestion. She said she’s also concerned that the growth would harm seagrasses and manatees.

Simpson said environmental studies and mitigation would also have to be addressed before the port could move forward with expansion plans.

Councilman Lew Crampton asked what the port is doing to protect surrounding communities from air pollution from its oceangoing vessels, and if the port has considered establishing a community impact committee.

Simpson said the committee sounds like a good idea.

“Growth is difficult,” he said. “It causes challenges. The port wants to be a good neighbor.”

Lisa Interlandi, policy director at the Everglades Law Center, said the port’s plan is ambiguous about the channel.
“I think this plan should expressly reject any channel modifications, expansions, deepening, widening. If it did that, I think it would go a long way to promoting more support for it.”

The Everglades Center joined the Save Our Inlet Coalition in opposing the deepening and widening of the inlet channel in the past, and stands ready to do so in the future if that becomes necessary, Interlandi said.

Interlandi, Lindsay and Araskog asked if the port would remove or screen the large metal scrap heap on its property. The heap is visible to Palm Beach residents.

The port is looking for opportunities to move the heap to a less visible spot, but there are logistical challenges, Simpson said.

Keith Beaty, president of the Save Our Inlet Coalition, and chairman of the Palm Beach Civic Association’s Intracoastal Committee, said he wanted to “strongly reinforce” the comments made by Lindsay and Interlandi.

Beaty said previous versions of the port plan identified four areas of the channel and port turning basin as earmarked for dredging. He asked whether that is still the case.

Simpson replied that there is currently no plan to widen or deepen the channel, or to improve the channel in any way.

The town staff plans to submit written comments on the port’s plan, based on input it received from the council. Those comments will result in a modified plan that will go to the port commission, then to Palm Beach County and the state for review.

Anyone who wishes to submit comments on the plan should email them to planportofpalmbeach@publicinput.com.

In an interview Wednesday, Beaty suggested that the plan include internal improvements to the port that could positively affect surrounding communities, including Palm Beach.

“This would include things like [addressing] light pollution, noise abatement and other activity levels within the port that may have a negative impact,” Beaty said.

Palm Beach Shores Mayor Alan Fiers said Wednesday that Palm Beach Shores does not oppose the port’s growth plans provided they do not include deepening or widening the inlet channel.

He cited impacts to seagrasses and the manatees, and the effect of drilling and hydraulic blasting on neighboring properties.

“This port should not try to compete with Jacksonville, Port Everglades and the other big ports,” Fiers said. “They’ve got a profitable business as a boutique port that runs to the islands.”

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