The Loxahatchee Groves Town Council agreed Tuesday, July 5 that while some changes may be needed along Okeechobee Blvd., the ones being suggested by town staff did not fit the bill.
At the meeting, the council voted unanimously to kill the long-discussed Okeechobee Blvd. overlay plan, and also asked for major changes to staff’s recommendations regarding how to spend grant money awarded by the Solid Waste Authority for beautification projects on the roadway.
First up was a discussion about the SWA’s Blighted and Distressed Property Clean-Up and Beautification Grant Program, through which the town was awarded $331,875. The money will be used for new entry signs at key town locations, as well as Okeechobee Blvd. intersection enhancements. The town must provide 25 percent matching funds, which will be through in-kind services done by the Public Works Department.
The timeline is tight to get the project done, however, since the money is supposed to be spent by Sept. 30. While the five planned entry signs are not controversial, the intersection improvements have been a sticking point, with some council members even wanting to turn down the grant money.
Regarding the entry signs, the council did not like the green color suggested by staff and asked that the brown tones and imagery of the existing sign at Okeechobee Blvd. and Folsom Road be picked up for the new signs, along with some degree of public input before the sign design is finalized.
“These signs say nothing about us,” Vice Mayor Laura Danowski said. “We can do a way better job on these signs.”
More controversial were the planned “mobility hubs” along Okeechobee Blvd. at the five lettered roads. While these were originally planned to include shelters and benches, that idea was removed previously by the council, which is wary of the sites becoming gathering places for migrant workers.
The design pitched by town staff at the July 5 meeting included concrete slabs with trash containers, lighted bollards and bike racks located on the south side of Okeechobee, east of the lettered roads, as far south as possible while still in the right-of-way. This will allow them to possibly survive any future widening of the road by Palm Beach County.
Councilwoman Phillis Maniglia did not feel that the mobility hubs provide any benefit to the town, particularly after the council majority’s decision recently to turn down a grant through the Transportation Planning Agency for other work on the roadway.
“The TPA grant would have benefited our taxpayers,” she said. “Who does this project benefit? Whose bicycles are sitting there? It’s not the kids who go to school, they belong to the migrant workers. The trash wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for the migrant workers illegally being picked up along the road.”
She called the mobility hubs “a nicer place for the migrant workers to hang out.”
Councilwoman Marianne Miles believes that the large garbage cans will lead to illegal dumping and was concerned about spending money on Okeechobee, which is a county road, not a town road.
“Do we want to put the money into something we don’t desperately need right now?” she asked. “I am not in favor of spending all of this money and getting bike racks and glorified trash cans.”
As council members questioned the garbage cans and the lighting, Town Manager Francine Ramaglia reminded them that the grant was through the SWA and has rules attached to it.
“The purpose of this grant was for beautification and to combat blight,” she said. “Part of blight is crime. The idea of having the lighting is to prevent crime… If we are thinking of not accepting this grant, we need to do it sooner, rather than later.”
She added that the town will be doing landscaping and beautification of these areas as part of its in-kind contribution with the hopes to starting an adopt-a-street program with local nurseries to keep the intersections looking their best.
“Nobody really likes the look that is currently there, and that’s what we were trying to address,” Ramaglia said.
Danowski said that she wants to continue with the grant but wants more options.
“I would prefer bus stops than pretty trash containers. I would prefer a mechanized crossing device,” she said. “I appreciate the work you have done to get us free money. I just can’t get behind fancy trash receptacles. There must be a happy compromise that will gets us our money and benefits the residents.”
During public comment, resident Paul Coleman expressed concerns about the mobility hubs.
“Anything that will make this town nicer, I’m for. But we should not be spending town money on county property,” he said.
Cassie Suchy wanted to see more equestrian elements included.
Maniglia said that the primary problem in that area is that it has become a gathering spot for migrant workers. She wants to see them off the roadways and in a centralized location, such as one of the local churches.
“Get rid of the garbage cans, get rid of the bike racks and make the sheriff’s office do its job,” she said. “We have nine churches on Okeechobee Blvd., and one of them should be able to take care of these guys who need jobs.”
Danowski agreed that it would be a good idea to try to negotiate with some of the churches to provide a safer location for the pickup and drop-off of workers.
Mayor Robert Shorr asked if the town can move forward quickly with the signs and continue to work on the Okeechobee Blvd. concepts. Ramaglia said that she could pose that question to the SWA.
Maniglia made a motion to turn down the grant, but it died for the lack of a second.
Danowski then made a motion that encompassed several of the ideas discussed, including eliminating the mobility hubs and incorporating the idea of solar-powered crossings on the north and south sides of Okeechobee, to incorporate license plate readers to curtail crime, to make bigger signs to prevent loitering, and to negotiate with churches for the pickup and drop-off of laborers.
Danowski’s motion passed 3-2 with Maniglia and Councilwoman Marge Herzog opposed.
Also at the meeting, the council drove the final nail into the coffin of the long-discussed Okeechobee Blvd. Overlay, which was designed to add legal, limited non-residential uses to the Okeechobee Blvd. corridor.
Technically, the discussion was the second reading of an ordinance that was continued from a meeting in September 2021, when the council sent the overlay plan back to staff for further refinements and public input.
After staff and committee meetings, public input sessions were held recently with most attendees opposed to any changes bringing additional commercial uses to Okeechobee Blvd.
Ramaglia said that the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council hosted two listening sessions, where members of the public were invited to give their opinions on the overlay. The TCRPC wrote a report with suggestions to make the plan more palatable, such as revisiting how “low-impact, non-residential” is characterized and to strengthen the use of the Rural Vista architectural guidelines, as well as include more rules to limit light pollution.
Town Planning Consultant Jim Fleischmann said that the ordinance includes comprehensive plan map amendments and text amendments that set strict limits on setbacks and floor-area ratios on the non-residential uses.
Public comments at the meeting opposed any additional commercial use on Okeechobee Blvd.
“At the last public input meeting, every speaker opposed this overlay,” Sunsport Gardens resident Morley Schloss said. “No one spoke in favor of it. Our board of directors met and discussed the overlay and unanimously opposed any additional commercial on Okeechobee.”
Coleman also opposed the overlay.
“We haven’t built out the commercial on Southern Blvd., and now we’re talking about commercial on Okeechobee,” he said. “During the most recent election, it was resounding across the board, no commercial on Okeechobee. I don’t even understand why we are still here discussing this.”
Suchy took aim at Fleischmann and suggested that the town needs changes in its planning staff.
“He was hired to develop our town. He is the single, common thread woven throughout this whole disaster,” she said. “You should vote this down, and after you vote this down, correct the staffing situation and hire a town planner to promote our town vision of staying rural.”
Virginia Standish said that commercial use should stay on Southern Blvd.
“The lack of control of development on Southern Blvd. gives many of us no confidence in what would happen on Okeechobee Blvd.,” she said.
The overlay needed four votes to pass, and it was clear from the start of council comments that was unlikely.
Hoping for a quick end to the discussion, Maniglia, a vocal opponent of the plan, made a motion to approve the overlay, which was seconded by Herzog.
Miles noted that there are existing businesses on Okeechobee Blvd., and code enforcement alone with not solve that issue.
“We can change lots of stuff, but what is not going to change is that Okeechobee will one day be widened,” she said.
Mayor Robert Shorr said that there are things that can be changed to make the overlay better, “but I don’t want to go through and make all these changes and it being all for naught.”
He called the vote, and Maniglia’s motion to approve the ordinance failed unanimously, 5-0.