Environmental attorney Thomas Mullin said last week that the City of West Palm Beach is not giving up its fight against the long-planned State Road 7 extension to Northlake Blvd., and has not yet exhausted all avenues to at least delay the process through litigation.
Mullin was invited by Councilman David Swift to give an update to the Royal Palm Beach Village Council on Thursday, July 14 about the status of the extension after hearing a presentation by his associate John Fumero at a recent Western Communities Council meeting.
Mullin explained that the design of the extension was the result of a process dating to the 1940s. The Florida Department of Transportation spent decades looking at connections for State Road 7 all the way through the western communities up into Palm Beach Gardens.
“Ultimately, State Road 7 was extended up to Okeechobee Blvd.,” Mullin said. “It came down to how are they going to align it.”
He pointed out that FDOT owns the right-of-way straight through from Okeechobee Blvd. to the Beeline Highway. That was the original alignment, which was set aside due to environmental issues.
“The county has what’s called the Pond Cypress Natural Area. To address some of the environmental considerations, that’s why you have the reliever road as exists now that goes around Pond Cypress and ends at 60th Street,” Mullin said. “This project is really the next phase of it. It would widen that reliever road from two lanes to four lanes and construct the new road from 60th Street along the M Canal, curving along the southern boundary of Ibis and along the eastern edge of Ibis up through to Northlake. We look at it as an extension of the existing road.”
The issue is over the future road’s location adjacent to the western edge of the West Palm Beach Water Catchment Area and the Ibis neighborhood to the west.
“The mayor of West Palm Beach has spoken out strongly against the project, and the residents of Ibis are not excited about the project being located there on the eastern side of their boundary,” Mullin said. “The fact that it’s next to the water catchment area, the Grassy Waters Environmental Preserve, as it’s also known, there are some environmental concerns.”
Mullin explained that discharge from the water catchment area eventually makes its way to West Palm Beach’s water treatment plant.
He said that the South Florida Water Management District issued an environmental resource permit jointly to the FDOT and Palm Beach County on Feb. 15, and that West Palm Beach filed a petition challenging the permit on March 22. The challenge is currently in the discovery and deposition phase, with the final hearing set for the end of August.
Mullin said the issues to be discussed include water quantity and quality, effects on environmental resources and wildlife, and real property and drainage rights.
Although the issues are not new, he said that West Palm Beach amended its petition to be clearer as to what its issues are.
Mullin said the environmental resources permit issued recognizes that the applicants, FDOT and the county, have eliminated or mitigated environmental issues to the greatest extent practicable.
“It’s a very lengthy, detailed process,” he said. “The project has just completed a very lengthy federal review. The federal agencies all weighed in and provided their comments. Design changes were made in response to those comments, so it’s really looking at the various impact and whether they have been minimized and whether they have been mitigated.”
Mullin detailed how environmental impacts have been minimized by modifying the road cross section to reduce wetland impacts, and shifting the alignment to the west to reduce the wetland effects and provide on-site mitigation. A dry detention area was narrowed to allow a wider wet retention pond, and wildlife fencing and crossings were added.
“Between the county and the state right of way, they have 320 feet,” he said. “The original design included all 320 feet. As the result of analysis, we actually shrunk that cross section so that now, instead of being the full 320 feet, it’s only about 210 feet, and there actually is 109 feet that has been strictly preserved. There’s going to be a conservation easement placed over that area so that there will be no additional development.”
Mullin said that administrative challenges such as this are unique in that an administrative law judge issues a recommended order that must be approved by his agency.
“It walks and talks like a trial, but it is different,” he said. “Some of the rules of evidence apply, but some do not. We can rely on hearsay to the extent that it corroborates other evidence. Instead of a judge, you have an administrative law judge.”
He said the judge works for the Division of Administrative Hearings, part of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
“He is going to be an expert in this field,” Mullin said. “His name is Bram Cantor. He is a former environmental attorney who became an administrative law judge. He has been doing this for a very long time.”
Following the trial, there is a process that can stretch to 60 days. The administrative law judge will issue a recommended order, but his authority is not final. Objections can still be filed, and Mullin said it could be three or four months after the trial before all issues are resolved.
“He sends his recommended order to the agency,” he said. “The agency will generally just sign off his recommended order and issue the final order, and that order is our final permit.”
He recommended that leaders and residents of the western communities get out and let their voices be heard.
“Collectively, the western communities have just as much population as the City of West Palm Beach,” Mullin said. “Right now, the agencies, whether it’s the EPA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the South Florida Water Management District, all they’re hearing are the negatives of this project, and there really are so many positives. I think the one recommendation that we could make to you all, which is the same that we made to the Western Communities Council, is that you have a voice.”