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The Village Council on Tuesday threw a monkey wrench into the meticulously laid out $250 million plan to fight sea level rise, with some members saying they want to rethink the intricate blueprint to replumb storm drains, bury electrical lines and fortify the island’s shoreline against Nature.

On an island that floods every time the sky sneezes and with sea level rise and storm surge representing existential threats, the Village Council could end up fumbling the ball on the one-yard line just as real work is set to start. 

Council Member Brett Moss said the project may be going too fast and that the 15-year time frame could possibly be doubled. Council Member Fernando Vazquez spoke about needing “a programmatic component” so that the Council could assess all the ideas out there and “put this jigsaw puzzle together within time.”

The comments seemed to ignore numerous meetings and presentations made by Village Manager Steve Williamson and staff – as well as the consultants the Council itself has hired – on what the complicated set of projects entail

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“We know this is the right guy, but at the same time, I don’t remember us having a good conversation on giving what direction we want him to run the ball,” Council Member Brett Moss said.

Resiliency has been the main issue for two successive election cycles and voters overwhelmingly approved a $100 million general obligation bond in 2020. 

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Council members decided to hold a workshop so they could talk among themselves to see if they really want to sign off on the plan meted out by the experts they hired – including Williamson, a former Army Corps of Engineer colonel.

It was in April of last year that Williamson spelled out the project in a 21-page Powerpoint – dubbed at the time ‘Elevating our island paradise.” It aimed to completely overhaul the aging and ineffective storm water draining system, bury underground electrical lines, roadway improvements, address environmental change and upgrade building codes and standards, along with protection of ocean and bay shorelines.

Williamson warned council members with no uncertainty at the time: “Not taking action now will magnify these threats and vulnerabilities.”  Furthermore, the plan’s mantra “dig once,” aimed at both saving money  and not inconvenience residents – and snarl traffic.

Last July, Council voted 7-0 to hire engineering firm Black & Veatch to manage and implement the project.  But at last month’s Council meeting, the wheels started to come off when Moss and Vasquez didn’t like the company’s presentation for the initial work order. The firm is tasked with the massive job of planning the overlapping projects. 

At a budget planning session last month, Moss said he wanted further analysis, while Williamson said, “I choose to get things done.”

On Tuesday, Moss seemed willing to unravel the whole plan, questioning the “dig once” strategy, saying that “this is stuff I lose sleep over. I really do. I go to bed and I just stay up thinking about this.”

“I mean this could be a 30-year process. Yes, we might have to dig up the streets twice,” he said. 

The plan was to be implemented on the flood prone K-8 basin. Consulting firm AECOM – Vasquez’s former employer – had also been hired to spell out how the K-8 south of the Community Center would be used to fine tune the project in other areas of the island. 

“It’s been clear to me so far that we do the K-8 and we figure out whether or not that’s the right approach,” said Mayor Joe Rasco at the meeting. “And if it isn’t, you know, we go back to square one and change it.”

Rasco agreed to the workshop, appeasing Moss by saying, “I want this man to sleep well at night.”

Moss, after the meeting, tried to walk back his comments. 

He said he simply wants to make sure all Council members are on the same page. When asked why he voted to approve the hiring of Black & Veatch last year if their plan wasn’t going to be endorsed, Moss said there had been no decision on whether to engage the company on its plan – noting last month’s punt on approving the firm’s initial payment.

Williamson, when asked about the turn of events of the meeting, said he thinks fear seems to be gripping the Council at this crucial juncture, considering the scope and cost of the project. 

“We’ve given them opportunities along the way to give us guidance,” he said.

John Pacenti

JOHN PACENTI is a correspondent of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.

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JOHN PACENTI is a correspondent of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.