By Mary Hladky
The City Council has sidestepped for now a final decision on whether assisted living facilities can be built in single-family neighborhoods.
ALFs are not allowed now in residential areas. But Whelchel Partners proposed building one about two years ago at 2 SW 12th Ave., just south of Palmetto Park Road in the Boca Square neighborhood.
Boca Square residents quickly organized in opposition, saying that the three-story building would loom over their homes, increase traffic, endanger children going to and from Addison Mizner Elementary School and destroy the quality of their neighborhood.
Opponents frequently speak out at City Council meetings, making sure that council members know that they will not slacken their efforts to torpedo the project.
City staff told Whelchel Partners, a company run by two of the late Mayor Susan Whelchel’s children, that unless the city’s comprehensive plan is amended, the ALF cannot be built in Boca Square. When Whelchel Partners did not seek a comp plan change and did not correct deficiencies identified by city staff in its proposal, the city stopped processing its development application.
The owner of the property, Religious Science Unlimited, filed a lawsuit against the city in April, asking a judge to compel the city to process the application and to determine that no change in the comp plan is required. The litigation is ongoing.
Most recently, council member Monica Mayotte asked that the council consider whether ALFs should or should not be allowed in neighborhoods. She was seeking a general policy on the issue, not one tied to the proposed Boca Square ALF.
The city attorney’s office placed a resolution on the council’s Oct. 25 agenda that would allow the council to set that policy.
Mayotte expressed her dismay at an Oct. 24 workshop meeting. She had not expected a formal resolution, she said, but rather wanted the council to have a discussion about where ALFs can be built.
“I don’t think this is being handled correctly,” she said, adding later, “I feel like I am being put in a box here and I don’t like it.”
What is needed, Mayotte said, is a “conversation about senior housing. We need to have a plan. The comp plan does not address senior housing specifically.”
She asked that the resolution be pulled from the agenda.
Boca Square residents, who along with Whelchel Partners had been told by the city about the resolution, jammed the council chambers the next night.
Mayotte again asked that the resolution be pulled. Mayor Scott Singer and council member Andy Thomson supported that. Deputy Mayor Andrea O’Rourke and council member Yvette Drucker wanted a discussion.
With so many residents wanting to speak, council members agreed they should be heard.
All spoke against the proposed ALF. If Whelchel Partners got what it wanted, several said, it would open the door to ALFs being built in other residential areas.
An analysis by city staff showed that while approving what Whelchel Partners is seeking would not allow ALFs in most neighborhoods, they could be built in some, especially those in western sections of the city. But the analysis cautioned that a further review might show additional neighborhoods affected.
“This may be a Trojan horse to ruin neighborhoods,” said Boca Square resident William Miller. “Not one single-family neighborhood will be safe.”
“We are talking about a monster building in a residential neighborhood,” said Bill Snow. “The quality of life in Boca Raton is going to change if this is put in a residential neighborhood.”
Jay Whelchel, principal of Whelchel Partners, defended his project.
“I encourage you to take a long view of senior housing in Boca,” he said. “There is a demand for assisted living facilities and senior housing.”
Joanne Jackson, Jay Whelchel’s sister, said high-quality senior housing is needed and her mother would have been in favor of the project.
With little discussion, the council voted 5-0 against changing the zoning code to allow ALFs in residential areas.
But that doesn’t mean the issue is resolved, since council members see a need to decide once and for all where ALFs can be built.
“We want to have a conversation about housing options for seniors,” Singer said. “I welcome that.”