Loxahatchee Groves residents circulating a petition to stop the construction of a new Palm Beach State College campus have collected enough signatures to draw a referendum.
The Loxahatchee Groves Town Council was told Tuesday night that the petition has been sent to the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Office, which is in the process of validating the signatures.
Town Attorney Mike Cirullo said the petition committee had turned in about 260 signatures to the town clerk Monday, which is the first step in the process for a citizens initiative provided for in the town’s charter.
“The town clerk is working with the Supervisor of Elections Office to confirm the signatures to see they meet the minimum requirement, which I believe is around 207 signatures necessary to move forward, and also to confirm any other issues there may be with sufficiency of the petition,” Cirullo said. “That is ongoing as we speak. The town clerk has up to 20 days to provide that information to the committee.”
If the petition is deemed sufficient, it would head to the council, which would have the option of either rescinding the ordinance permitting the campus or setting up a referendum. The council must make a determination on its course of action within 30 days.
Councilman Tom Goltzené said a state statute prevents them from putting the referendum question on the regular election ballot in March, which would mean additional costs.
Cirullo explained that the state election code requires notifications on the fifth and third week before the referendum. “Today would have been the deadline to meet the advertising requirements of that statute,” he said.
Loxahatchee Groves Water Control District Supervisor John Ryan said there is a Florida statute prohibiting referendums to rescind local comprehensive plan amendments.
“Basically, what that tells me is that we’re proceeding to spend time and money and aggravation on a fruitless petition,” Ryan said. “To me, it’s almost an absurdity. We’ve got the background of a legal process that we went through.”
Ryan said that a referendum resulting in rescission of the college campus approval would expose the town to a lawsuit under the Bert Harris Private Property Rights Protection Act. “We’ve been told by the college’s attorney that it’s $4.5 million,” Ryan said. “That probably doesn’t count the damages we’d be assessed for the commercial development associated with the college. To me, the facts need to get out to people, because I don’t believe most people understand what’s going on.”
Goltzené asked about a recent initiative in Boca Raton to rescind an approval, a case in which a circuit judge ruled it could move forward and which the city is appealing.
Goltzené said he did not think it is in the best interest of the council to try to pull legal maneuvers. “I would suggest allowing the people to have a referendum and make a decision, and then we will know one way or the other, and we’ll put to rest all these issues,” he said. “If the town wants to continue, we’ll have a divided town and we’ll continue to fight over things. I really think we ought to try to let the process, which is in our charter, go forward.”
Loxahatchee Groves Planning & Zoning Board Member Grace Joyce said she thought the council and the community should be proud of the process they went through to get the college campus.
“What’s distressing to me, not only as a member of this community, but as a member of the Planning & Zoning Board and also as a planner, is there were ample opportunities for public comment and for folks to get involved,” she said.
Joyce said she was relieved that the land use reverted from commercial mixed use that had been granted by the town to its original designation of rural residential, which allowed the college. The mixed-use designation would have allowed up to 500,000 square feet of commercial development on both properties, she said.
Joyce added that the college had every right to explain the possible consequences of a lawsuit to recoup the money it had invested in the land.
“I would much rather have a partner at the table that is going to be here for 50 to 100 years than a developer who is going to clear-cut the entire process, asphalt it, put in retail and then walk away,” she said. “These are folks who are willing to stay at the table with us for the next however many years.”
Joyce said she would also be interested in contacting the people who signed the petition to see whether they had been given correct information when they were asked to sign it.
Resident Thais Gonzalez, one of the leaders behind the petition, said she had received a call from a resident asking whether the property would have commercial development if the college approval were rescinded.
Mayor Dave Browning explained that rescinding the present rural residential use that permits the campus would allow it to revert to the mixed-use designation that had been granted to the developers, which they are allowed under the charter because it designates that area as a preferred location for commercial development.
Gonzalez said the town should let the people vote and decide what they want. She also pointed out that the charter designates commercial use on Southern Blvd. south of Tangerine Drive from C Road east.
“You guys have changed all of that,” she said. “You have gone all the way from Southern to Collecting Canal.”
Town council candidate Todd McLendon, who worked with Gonzalez on the petition, said the argument about whether the college should be there or not should instead be about whether council members listen to the people or not.
“For the five of you to throw legal maneuvers back and forth how to block this from happening, that shouldn’t be up to you guys to fight us,” McLendon said. “Let’s get it on the ballot and move forward with it and find out what the people want.”