A chorus of citizens in red greeted the Palm Beach County Commission yesterday. The Tea Party, some 80 strong, had come to warn the commissioners against Seven50, a regional planning initiative.
Seven50 presents itself as dedicated to economic prosperity and "environmental sustainability." But the Tea Party believes the project is actually a stalking horse for a federal (or possibly U.N.) takeover of all South Florida land use, with the ultimate goal of abolishing all private property rights. It follows, the Tea Party believes, that the commission has been duped or worse and should withdraw from the project.
The petitioners yesterday were middle-aged and older, Caucasian one and all. Emboldened by the latest in their string of victories -- Martin County last December opted out of Seven50, as St. Lucie and Indian River counties had previously -- they were rambunctious, enough so that Palm Beach County Tea Party President Mel Grossman was temporarily ejected, additional deputies were called to the scene, and presiding official County Mayor/Commissioner Priscilla A. Taylor had to repeatedly admonish the crowd.
The complaints of those who addressed the commission were a litany of fears: manipulation by the "false science" of environmentalism, the suppression of free speech, government subterfuge, "a high-speed railway careening through communities all the way to Miami," "a Communist idea," "HUD housing in gated communities."
Some of the redcoats' information was dubious. Tea Party President Grossman denounced Seven50 honcho Mike Busha as a "carpetbagger," only to learn from Commissioner Steve Abrams that Busha is, in fact, a Martin County resident.
Phyllis Frey, an Indian River County property rights activist, spoke briskly and with certainty. The linchpin of her case was a "quote" (as she called it) from Seven50's "Consortium Partnership Agreement." According to Frey, in her handout to the commission, the agreement states:
[Palm Beach County is] obligated to work with the Seven50 Executive Committee, established as THE OVERALL GOVERNING BODY for the partnership.And that executive committee:
"WILL CONTROL THE REGION, the project, the personnel, the overall work plan, recommend the selection of staff and consultants and will retain and provide all direction for the final Regional Vision Blueprint.
will be in a position to take a majority vote. It will have all authority to approve and implement the plan.
But no such "quote" exists in the consortium agreement (which can be seen here, on the website of Seven50's stakeholder group, the Southeast Florida Regional Partnership). Frey's "quote" appears to be a fabrication, a work of selective editing and interpolation to limn her vision of a totalitarian future.
The back and forth among commissioners looking to placate the fearful included references to "a difference of legal opinion" as to what the county signed on to with Seven50. But the Tea Party's "legal opinion" was that of lay people reading legal documents -- always a dicey practice -- and cited no legal authority to support its view. The Tea Party's Grossman told New Times his group "has no attorney yet."
The county, on the other hand, has relied on the work of Robert P. Banks, chief land use attorney in the office of County Attorney Denise Nieman. In emails to the commissioners, he has explained that the county's agreements with Seven50:
do not obligate Palm Beach County to implement the Seven50 Plan. The County would not be required to change its zoning or other ordinances or to defer to the plan in the event of conflict. Florida law does not obligate the county to implement the Seven50 Plan... The County has not and cannot delegate away its legislative authority regarding comprehensive planning by participating in the Seven50 planning process
Rather than dismiss the Tea Partiers outright, however, the commission chose to humor them, instructing County Attorney Nieman to draft an addendum to the county's agreement with Seven50, explicitly stating that the county has delegated no authority to the planners and that the plans are not binding on the county.
Maybe that exercise in redundancy will be enough to assuage the Tea Party. But we doubt it. Paranoia sees every concession as a deception, another layer of the onion. Unless the county chooses to completely opt out of Seven50, the redcoats will return.
Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.