Appellate Court Orders Full Rehearing Of SR 7 Extension Case

The State Road 7 extension project faces another delay after the Fourth District Court of Appeals denied a motion on Sept. 4 for a clarification filed by the City of West Palm Beach against the South Florida Water Management District.

The action continues years of West Palm Beach fighting the extension, whose planned route to Northlake Blvd. runs east of the Ibis Golf & Country Club. The city has opposed the project on environmental grounds, that it could potentially pollute the city’s nearby water catchment area.

The court was to narrow the issues to be retried before the administrative law judge, but that judge has retired, so the court has called for a full rehearing, according to Wellington Village Attorney Laurie Cohen, who briefed the Western Communities Council recently on the status of the case.

“In 2016, the South Florida Water Management District issued a notice of intent to issue an environmental resource permit to the Florida Department of Transportation and Palm Beach County. West Palm Beach, of course, challenged that notice of intent,” Cohen told the Town-Crier on Wednesday. “The basis of the challenge was that the project was going to have an adverse impact on the Grassy Waters Preserve, their catchment area. The district approved the permit, and the city appealed.”

This led to a long court hearing. “They had to go to an administrative hearing in front of an administrative law judge in 2016,” Cohen said. “It was a very long hearing, and there were a lot of issues that were being raised by West Palm Beach and their experts.”

About a week before the hearing, the county and FDOT amended the permit application in regard to impact on the water catchment area. They revised construction plans and redesigned the stormwater management system to mitigate any impacts, Cohen said.

“For the first time, they alleged that there would be a net improvement to the water quality,” Cohen said. “Because of the last-minute amendment, the city moved to continue the hearing, so their experts would have time to review the new assertions.”

At the hearing, the administrative law judge excluded the expert opinions of the city, and the city filed exceptions to the administrative law judge’s recommended order. Ultimately, the South Florida Water Management District approved the road’s permit, and the city appealed to the Fourth District Court of Appeals.

“Even though the administrative law judge’s order was very lengthy, and the approval of that order by the district was a lengthy order, they only challenged two things on appeal — a due process challenge to the denial of their opportunity to address the final permit application, and the second thing they challenged was the interpretation of the water quality,” Cohen explained.

The appellate court found that the cumulative effect of the administrative law judge’s errors prejudiced the city and remanded the opinion back to the judge. The county and FDOT filed a motion for a rehearing or clarification, but the appellate court remanded the entire case back for a new hearing, rather than the few issues raised by West Palm Beach.

“In the meantime, the judge who had heard the original matter has retired, so it’s going to have to go to an entirely new administrative law judge,” Cohen said. “The county and FDOT believe that this is a terrible waste of taxpayer money, but unfortunately, that’s what the court has ruled.”

The court will issue its final mandate on or about Sept. 19-21, concluding the appeal, at which point the case will be sent back to an administrative law judge for a new hearing, according to a letter from Western Communities Council Executive Director Tanya Quickel.

On Aug. 30, Quickel and Palm Beach County Mayor Melissa McKinlay signed a letter on behalf of the Western Communities to FDOT Secretary Mike Dew thanking him for his continued support of the SR 7 extension project and restating the support of Palm Beach County, the Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency, the Indian Trail Improvement District, the Village of Wellington, the Village of Royal Palm Beach, the Town of Loxahatchee Groves and the City of Westlake.

“The Western Communities Council has consistently supported this project and has submitted numerous resolutions, attended all public hearings and workshops and obtained legislative support throughout the years for this extremely important project,” the letter stated. “The council and its member governments continue to monitor and actively participate in the process for the construction of State Road 7 to Northlake Blvd. to ensure that this vital roadway is completed.”

ITID President Betty Argue, who attended the recent Western Communities Council meeting, said she was disappointed that there must be a complete rehearing.

“At this point, we redo the administrative hearings, and unless there’s new evidence — and they’ll be able to bring in new evidence because it’s a whole new trial — that is material enough to change the new judge’s opinion, I imagine that we’ll get to the same place,” Argue said. “The South Florida Water Management District permit will be granted, and I’m sure the City of West Palm Beach will find another reason to appeal.”