Who sent boat-lift surveyors to Lake Worth Beach park without city's OK? 'Innocent mistake' blamed
Updated: Feb 4, 2022
ON A WARM MONDAY afternoon in November, Lake Worth Beach resident Carl Schulte was walking his dogs through Spillway Park, a 4.5-acre public greenspace in the city’s College Park neighborhood, when he noticed something odd.
A surveyor with the civil engineering firm Engenuity Group was taking measurements at the north end of the park along the top of a grassy field that slopes down to the south shore of the C-51 canal, which separates Lake Worth Beach from West Palm Beach.
The measurements, the surveyor explained to Schulte and another visitor, were being taken as a preliminary step for a plan to replace the park’s north end with fishing and portage piers and a 30-foot high boat lift allowing small boats to get around the spillway’s flood-control structure.
But just two weeks earlier, on Nov. 2, the Lake Worth Beach City Commission voted to postpone a resolution to consider the plans, which residents refer to as the boat-lift project even though it would include the other amenities.
Passing the resolution would only signal the city’s desire to study the proposal, which can’t break ground without final approvals from the city and other public agencies. But a majority of commissioners Nov. 2 felt it prudent to postpone a vote until they could look into concerns raised by residents like Schulte who fear the boat lift will destroy the park and harm the surrounding neighborhood.
The presence of Engenuity Group at Spillway Park on Nov. 15 raised a troubling question: If the city hasn’t decided whether it wants to even go forward with the project, what was the surveyor doing there and who sent him?
“It was strange,’’ said Juan Ruiz, interim city manager for Lake Worth Beach, who learned about the surveyors after College Park residents contacted a city commissioner. “We were trying to figure out who ordered the work. It wasn't us.’’
He checked with the South Florida Water Management District, which owns the park and leases it to the city. It wasn’t them, either, the district said.
After two days of phone calls, Ruiz found the answer.
Engenuity Group was surveying Spillway Park on behalf of its client, Blueway Trail Inc., a nonprofit promoting a plan to link the lakes west of Interstate 95 with the Intracoastal Waterway.
The main officer of Blueway Trail Inc. is Dan Clark, town manager of Lake Clarke Shores, who is among the most aggressive supporters of the boat lift. The Blueway Trail’s website includes studies claiming a boat lift would enhance Lake Clarke Shores property values through the access it would provide to the Intracoastal Waterway and Atlantic Ocean.
“Wow,’’ City Commissioner Christopher McVoy said when he learned the city manager of a neighboring municipality had ordered the work. “Getting people to survey land that you neither own nor lease for a project that you’re pushing but has not been approved by the owner or the lessee, the optics don’t look good.’
In an interview, Clark said he hired the surveyors in Spillway Park and he agrees that the optics are terrible. But he insists there was nothing nefarious, and both Ruiz and McVoy said they believed him.
“It was totally my mistake,’’ Clark said.
Here’s how it went down.
Earlier this year, Clark discussed the boat lift and other improvements for Spillway Park in individual meetings with the five Lake Worth Beach city commissioners, he said.
“A lot of questions were asked by the commissioners (that) I thought could be resolved with a good survey of the site,’’ he said.
Knowing the city commission was planning to consider the resolution in early November, he said he asked Engenuity Group, which provides engineering service for Lake Clarke Shores, for a cost estimate for the Spillway Park survey.
He said he also told Ruiz he was making arrangements for the survey.
“Juan advised me to wait until after the Nov. 2 commission meeting,’’ Clark said. “So that is what I told my surveyor, wait until after the Nov. 2 commission meeting.’’
But when the Nov. 2 resolution was postponed, Clark forgot to cancel the surveying plans.
“I just neglected to get back to the surveyor and tell him don't go out there. It was a mistake on my part,’’ he said. “As soon as I heard they were out there, I called them off.’’
Clarke said he apologized to Ruiz and to McVoy, who brought the issue to Ruiz’s attention after learning about it from a College Park resident.
But why didn’t Clark just wait until after the Nov. 2 meeting before hiring Engenuity Group to conduct the survey?
“Timing,’’ he replied. “Everything is about timing. Engenuity is the town’s engineer. I happened to be talking to them about other work and I said, ‘We may be under a time crunch here to answer some questions. It would be nice if you guys could schedule this.’ It was all about trying to respond to questions we were being asked by commissioners in a timely fashion.’’
McVoy said he appreciated Clark’s apology. “If Dan says he made an honest mistake, I’ll take him at his word,’’ he said.
But he said he didn’t understand why the survey was needed in the first place. The Blueway Trail website already includes a feasibility study, reports and preliminary site plans for the project, some dating back to 2009 from agencies like the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council, he said.
“I think I believe him on the ‘forgot,’’’ McVoy said, “however, the idea that surveying this was going to answer questions (raised by) the commission seems a little odd. What would they survey that they didn’t already have information on?’’
The revelation of Clark’s mistake comes at a time when debate over the project is heating up again. It’s also fueling suspicions by opponents about forces behind the scenes trying to make the boat lift a reality.
“Even the agenda item entitled ‘supporting improvements to the Blueway Trail’ was deceptive by design. Who would even know what that means?’’ College Park resident David H. Brodie wrote in an email Nov. 2 urging commissioners to reject the resolution.
“We expect more from our commissioners than to be deceived or bullied into approving this project,’’ he wrote.
Schulte said he doesn’t believe an honest mistake was made when Clark failed to call off the surveyors.
“That’s like telling the police ‘I wasn’t looking at my speedometer,'’’ he said.
“The optics are really, really terrible. It looks like this is being done under cover of darkness, like they’re trying to sneak it through without telling everybody. The only way we know about it is because we see the surveyors.’’
When Richard Pinsky, president of Blueway Trails Inc., learned that a reporter was asking questions about the surveyors, he reached out to the reporter because he felt it important to make a distinction: The proposal for the boat lift is separate from the waterway known as the Blueway Trail.
The Blueway Trail is a nearly 30-mile stretch of water from Lake Ida in Delray Beach to the C-51 Canal and Pine Lake in West Palm Beach. He said it was designated as a state paddling trail in April by the Florida Greenways and Trails Council.
“The words ‘blueway trail’ and ‘boat lift’ have been interchanged so much. I'm trying to preserve the blueway trail and make sure people understand the boat lift is a separate initiative that Lake Clarke Shores wants to get done but the blueway trail as an ecotourism paddling trail exists in and of itself,’’ said Pinsky.
Pinsky, lobbyist for Lake Worth Beach, also said he believes Clark made “an innocent” mistake by ordering the surveying work for the boat lift.
The boat lift and other enhancements are expected to cost at least $5.5 million, an investment supporters say will be worth the economic boost it will bring to the marine industry and towns around Spillway Park.
The boat lift would accommodate boats up to 25 long and 5.5 feet high, a fact raised by opponents who question whether boats that size could even handle rough ocean waters.
Regardless of whether a boat lift is approved, Pinsky said he hopes to at least establish a portage at Spillway Park for canoes, kayaks and paddle boards.
Some opponents said they would support the addition of new fishing piers and portage areas for kayaks, canoes and paddle boards. But not a boat lift and the traffic, noise, pollution and danger they fear it would bring to the small park.
“This is literally like putting a helicopter pad on your tennis court,’’ Schulte said. “The bottom line is people who are pushing for this ‘improvement’ are really just trying to improve their (financial) bottom line. They're not actually trying to improve the quality of life for the residents of this town.’’
A 2015 study on the Blueway Trail website found that the boat lift could boost the values of about 1,400 properties in Lake Clarke Shores, Lake Worth Beach and West Palm Beach by as much as $77 million.
In Lake Clarke Shores, about half of the town’s 1,400 single-family homes are on water that connects to the Blueway Trail, Clark said. Waterfront property owners include Clark and all five members of the Lake Clarke Shores Town Council, according to property appraiser records.
“There is huge potential for a lot of other benefits to Lake Worth Beach from enhancements to that park,’’ Clark said.
“I am probably speaking out of turn here but if people take a look at that park and ask themselves, what’s the benefit to my community right now in that park? It’s a great place for homeless people and that's about it,’’ he said.
While homeless people do congregate at times in the quiet, shady neighborhood park, so do picnickers, fishermen, dog walkers and bird watchers.
“Whoever hired the surveyors showed a lack of respect for the residents and our neighborhood park by jumping forward before our commissioners could evaluate the project,’’ said Gael Silverblatt, a Lake worth Beach resident who visits the park once a week with binoculars and cameras to watch spot-breasted orioles, blue-headed vireo and other birds.
“It’s clear who benefits from this project,’’ she said, “and it’s not Lake Worth Beach.’’
The resolution will come back to the city commission some time next year. McVoy has asked commissioners to take a public field trip to Spillway Park, as he has done, before they vote on the resolution.
Despite the controversy, Clark got one small piece of good news. Engenuity’s budget for the survey was $8,000.
“Since they didn't finish it they're only going to bill me for actual time expended,’’ Clark said.
He said he hasn’t gotten the final bill yet for the three days the firm spent in the park.
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