While groups opposed to the long-planned extension of State Road 7 to Northlake Blvd. have vowed to keep fighting, a recent judge’s ruling puts the project back on the Florida Department of Transportation’s front burner.
Plans to connect SR 7 to Northlake Blvd. have been in the books since 1945. Legal wrangling on the subject doesn’t go back quite that long, but it sometimes feels that way.
The City of West Palm Beach has led the effort, fighting the connection tooth and nail, to the tune of more than $2 million in legal fees. West Palm Beach objects to the planned route adjacent to the Grassy Waters Preserve and near the Ibis Golf & Country Club.
John Fumero, special outside counsel to the FDOT, is confident that the legal wrangling is nearing an end.
“There was a yearlong, rigorous challenge to a permit for the State Road 7 extension that was issued by the South Florida Water Management District to the Florida Department of Transportation and Palm Beach County, as co-applicants. We went through an almost six-day-long trial,” he explained.
In late March, Florida Administrative Law Judge Bram Canter wrote a long-awaited 51-page analysis not only building the coffin for every argument against the road’s extension, he hammered in almost all of the nails.
“In that order, the judge’s role was to determine if FDOT complied with all of the applicable permit criteria and all of the pertinent environmental protection criteria in order to qualify for the State Road 7 extension project,” Fumero said. “The judge categorically determined that the FDOT, in all cases, either met or exceeded all of the permit criteria and all of the environmental requirements.”
All eyes now turn to the SFWMD. The order, Fumero said, will be presented to the SFWMD for entry into a final order. If that order is issued, which many expect is likely, it will adopt the recommended order and constitute the issuing of a state permit authorizing the extension.
With the SFWMD permit, the state can then get its permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and break ground on a project that is the culmination of three decades of planning, design and permitting.
“The State Road 7 project is needed to alleviate traffic issues in and around The Acreage area and to create hurricane evacuation routes,” Fumero said. “Right now, for this part of western Palm Beach County, they need additional evacuation routes.”
Following the favorable judge’s order, FDOT has begun moving forward more aggressively with plans for the road, which 18 months ago was downgraded in the schedule due to the legal uncertainties.
“The department is waiting for entry of the final order by the South Florida Water Management District and the ultimate issuance of its permits,” FDOT spokesman Chuck McGinness said. “The department is moving forward with project design activities with the intent to let the SR 7 project for construction as soon as possible.”
For local officials, that can’t come soon enough.
“We’re glad that the judge saw that there’s a public purpose and it’s not causing the harm that others were claiming. It is definitely a needed project for the western communities,” Royal Palm Beach Village Manager Ray Liggins said.
Royal Palm Beach Mayor Fred Pinto agreed.
“The ruling by the judge was basically a response to West Palm Beach trying to claim that there would be potential environmental damage to their waterways, wetlands area,” Pinto said. “I was actually at the hearing, and I testified… It took a lot longer to make a determination, but he did, and the determination was that there was no reason for FDOT not to be issued the permit.”
FDOT has the funding allocated for the project, said former Indian Trail Improvement District Supervisor Michelle Damone, who spent most of her tenure on the ITID board fighting to bring SR 7 to Northlake.
“The City of West Palm Beach, if they decide to appeal this, then it would just be without merit, simply to delay the project. It wouldn’t be because they thought they had a chance,” she said. “They have the opportunity to appeal. They can appeal it on the federal level, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ report was in favor of SR 7. They recognized on the environmental study that the environmental issues were addressed.”
The SR 7 project is important to the area, and particularly Royal Palm Beach, Pinto explained.
“Once the extension goes all the way up to Northlake, that means we can have traffic circulating on the Northlake northern perimeter and on Southern Blvd., the southern perimeter, and basically route traffic around the Royal Palm Beach area, and not have traffic come through the village,” Pinto said.
Wellington Village Manager Paul Schofield agreed that the extension will allow for more efficient and streamlined traffic.
“State Road 7 has been in the plan since before 1950. We’re really 70 years into knowing that needed to be done,” Schofield said. “There’s a whole series of development that happened along Okeechobee Blvd. that was all predicated on the State Road 7 extension going through. There’s a whole lot of development on Northlake, there’s a great deal of development in The Acreage, that all was dependent on State Road 7.”
Royal Palm Beach suffers from major traffic congestion on Okeechobee Blvd., Schofield explained, estimating that it is the most heavily traveled east/west roadway. SR 7, he said, is one of the most heavily traveled roads in the county. By extending the road, it creates a much-needed north/south access.
Though all of the western communities don’t always see eye to eye, this is something that they worked together on, providing a united front, he said.
“It’s something that we’ve needed for years,” Schofield said. “I’m glad to see it finally able to move forward.”
There are many advantages to completing the SR 7 extension, explained former Royal Palm Beach Councilman David Swift, another longtime proponent of the project.
“Opening up the business community, Palm Beach Gardens and Wellington and Royal Palm Beach, having a better availability that residents from our community can travel there and vice versa, that they can come to the western communities a lot easier. That is important to the business community here,” Swift said. “It’s very important to the western communities, especially The Acreage, in responding to emergency situations.”
The extension will allow western residents easier access to the recreational opportunities in northern Palm Beach County, such as the beaches and rivers in Jupiter, Swift added.
Damone credits the hard work and dedication of a strong leadership group coming together for the best interest of public safety, health and welfare for helping keep the project on track through its ups and downs.
“I’ll be the happiest woman on the ribbon-cutting day when State Road 7 is completely open to Northlake Blvd.,” she said.
Not only will the project help traffic, Fumero is confident that it will be done in an environmentally friendly way.
“This is a culmination of decades of study of federal and state agencies to make sure that this project is undertaken in an environmentally responsible fashion,” he said. “This is a road that is for the benefit for traffic and evacuation for the western communities. The Department of Environmental Protection has gone above and beyond to make sure that this is an environmentally responsible project.”