BY PAUL GABA
Approval of a new gas station at the northwest corner of Southern and Royal Palm Beach boulevards was postponed two weeks after a Thursday, Oct. 15 meeting featured a contentious debate and allegations that the Royal Palm Beach Village Council was violating state law.
The meeting was slated to include a public hearing to consider approving construction of a RaceTrac gas station on two currently unused, adjacent plots of land.
However, a presentation by planner Brian Terry of the Wantman Group was interrupted numerous times by members of the public, who offered jeers and catcalls during both his pitch and during attempts to discuss the measure by council members.
Adding fuel to the gas station debate was a claim by attorney David Markarian —representing nearly 200 residents opposed to the gas station — that because people attending couldn’t fit into the Village Meeting Hall building to witness the discussion, the board could be in violation of the state’s “Government-in-the-Sunshine” law.
After Markarian raised his Sunshine Law concerns, the council took a brief recess to meet with Village Attorney Keith Davis, who advised them that because of the number of people involved who might not be able to actively participate due to the size of the venue, it would be in the village’s best interest to move the meeting to a larger facility.
Council members agreed and postponed the public hearing to Thursday, Oct. 29 at the Royal Palm Beach Cultural Center, which can house a much larger audience. The meeting will begin at 7 p.m.
“This is our job, to hear people, and I don’t think that will happen tonight,” Vice Mayor Richard Valuntas said. “It’s obviously important enough to have its own meeting date.”
Councilman Fred Pinto agreed.
“Our policy is, when this council is aware it will have a significant number of residents [in attendance], to schedule a special meeting,” he said. “I suggest we do that here. We need enough time to adequately review testimony and information.”
That information includes a six-page letter presented to the board by Markarian at the start of the meeting, laying out objections that residents have regarding the project. Several council members said that they would not be able to properly weigh the details presented, since they had not been offered the opportunity to analyze what was written in advance.
“I was just brought the letter by your attorney, and I need to read it and identify it,” Councilman David Swift told the audience. “I can’t tell if he has a case tonight while listening to your concerns at the same time.”
Councilman Jeff Hmara wanted to make sure that proper procedure is followed. “The basis for this decision needs to be… evidence and facts,” he said. “We need to take it seriously, as if it was a court — we have very strict rules to follow. And if there is any other information out there that should be considered evidence, we need it in advance to review.”
At the Oct. 29 special meeting, council members will need to weigh the merits of new construction in a commercially zoned area against residents’ opposition based on traffic concerns, property value concerns and how having a gas station at that location will represent the village
Markarian’s letter spelled out
those opposing points. He suggested that the gas station could bring adverse environmental impacts, traffic problems along Royal Palm Beach Blvd., safety issues due to the increase in traffic, incompatibility with the neighborhood nearby and perhaps adversely impact property values of homeowners in the area.
At the start of the public hearing, Royal Palm Beach Planning & Zoning Administrator Bradford O’Brien laid out the basics for council members.
RaceTrac was proposing a 5,928-square-foot auto service station on 2.41 acres on two plots: the abandoned TD Bank property and adjacent vacant property owned by Jess Santamaria. The project would include 10 islands with two pumps each, a canopy over the islands, a convenience store and two water retention areas.
“The plan was reviewed by staff regarding the size, width, setbacks, pervious areas, parking requirements, landscape area and heights, and all conform with village standards,” O’Brien said, noting that the Royal Palm Beach Planning & Zoning Commission unanimously approved the proposal Sept. 24.
Davis said board members need to consider whether the proposal meets 10 criteria set forth by the village: that it meets the Royal Palm Beach comprehensive plan and codes, has no adverse environmental impacts, no adverse vehicular or pedestrian issues, no adverse impact on public facilities such as law enforcement, no adverse impact on adjacent properties, is compatible with the character and living conditions of existing neighborhoods, has no adverse impact on property values, is not a deterrent to the improvement of adjacent property, and won’t seriously reduce the quality and quantity of air in the area.
Davis also noted it is the burden of the applicant to provide “competent substantial evidence,” and that the board needs to evaluate factual evidence, not emotionally charged claims.
“If the applicant establishes all of the criteria with competent substantial evidence, the law obliges you to approve the application,” Davis said.
Davis said competent substantial evidence is “based in fact, and does more than create a suspicion or is based on pure objections, or is unfounded, or are allegations not based on fact. It has to be more than a probability or a guess.”
Terry noted that RaceTrac had worked with the village to design a project that fits the area. For example, the project would shy away from the company’s normal color scheme, incorporating subtle, earthy tones on the canopy and signage instead of RaceTrac’s normal design.
“Typically, the canopy would be red, but we went with a beige color, so that its presence on the intersection wouldn’t be a deterrent,” Terry said. “We want to be here; we want to work within the confines of your codes.”
Terry also noted that the project would offer a significant upgrade to the community and the affected area in particular.
“Our proposal is to do a significant improvement to the area and invest in the community,” Terry said. “It would improve the corner, aesthetically, and provide a long-term facility that generates tax base and be a service to residents who live around it.”
Terry also said, after doing a traffic study and analysis, that the project would be able to mitigate and rectify the projected increase in traffic through several proposed changes.
“The biggest problem we found in the study is that primary intersection doesn’t work, it fails,” Terry said. “For all residents living north of the intersection, driving south, there are only two lanes turning left [from Royal Palm Beach Blvd. onto Southern Blvd.], and that stacks up. We have proposed widening that intersection, and adding a third left lane, which will improve the turn lane situation, with no impact to trees and signage at the corner.”
The project would also close off an entrance aligned directly across from the shopping center due east of the proposed gas station, stopping dangerous east-west and west-east traffic from taking place, Terry said. Meanwhile, a deceleration lane would be added on Southern Blvd. west of Royal Palm Beach Blvd. to reduce traffic backups along the busy thoroughfare.
“This way, we can offset traffic generated by us, and also improve the current situation,” Terry said.
Terry’s traffic proposal was among the moments interrupted by the crowd, which did not agree with his assessment of the traffic improvement.
More than 60 residents in attendance had filled out comment cards, which would have led to more than three hours of public testimony.
At the suggestion of Mayor Matty Mattioli, residents were urged to consolidate their oral comments to expedite the process. Many agreed to this, but ultimately only one resident had the chance to speak before Markarian raised his Sunshine Law objection and abruptly ended the discussion.
ABOVE: The Royal Palm Beach Village Council.