By Steve Plunkett
The Jewish congregation that caused a stir when it received City Council approval to build a towering synagogue and an Israel museum on Palmetto Park Road east of the Intracoastal Waterway fears it may not get title to the land.
In papers filed in Palm Beach County Circuit Court in February, the Chabad of East Boca Raton says it was promised the 0.84 acres at 770 E. Palmetto Park Road by Irving Litwak, a devoted congregant who set up a land trust that acquired the parcel in 2009 for $2.7 million.
But Litwak died Nov. 25 before transferring the land to the Chabad, and officially the property’s owners remain the co-trustees of Litwak’s TJCV Land Trust. Already, Litwak’s son, Harris Litwak, described in the lawsuit as an agent of the trust, has emailed Boca Raton officials to see if the city would like to lease the parcel for a parking lot.
The trustees “are fully aware of Harris Litwak’s activities” and have “refused to withdraw or repudiate the lease offer,” the Chabad’s suit says.
“Such completely inconsistent action is an anticipatory repudiation of the Land Trust’s agreement to convey the property to the Chabad,” it says.
Rabbi Ruvi New, the Chabad’s spiritual leader, was out of town and could not be reached for comment on the lawsuit.
In 2008, Irving Litwak executed a “direction of beneficiary” to the trustees ordering them “to transfer the property for no consideration, as a charitable donation” to the Chabad for the establishment of a synagogue. “Such transfer shall occur no later than five (5) days following issuance of a permit by the city for the construction of a Chabad shul upon the property,” the document said.
The 4th District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach decided in November not to review a Circuit Court decision that overturned the City Council’s approval of the synagogue/museum. The lower court had ruled that a museum was not a permitted use on that part of Palmetto Park Road after real estate broker David Roberts, whose offices are across the street, objected to the plan.
Since then, Chabad officials have had several meetings with Derek Vander Ploeg, the project architect, to prepare a revised site plan for construction of the synagogue without the museum component, the lawsuit says.
The Chabad alleges breach of contract and asks a judge to order the trust to turn over the property.
“The Chabad spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in architectural fees, legal fees, and other professional fees (as well as costs for maintaining the property), in the good faith belief that the trust was holding the property for the benefit of the Chabad and would complete the transfer of the property to the Chabad once the city of Boca Raton approved the use of the property for a synagogue,” the suit states.
The Palm Beach County property appraiser says the land has a market value of $1.5 million.
Harris Litwak’s email to the city, dated Jan. 2, says the parcel “has sat for way too long.”
“We would like to lease it to the city as a parking lot/park setting for the benefit of local business, beachgoers and any others situated to take advantage of what has become inadequate parking in east Boca Raton,” it said. “We are under new management and are eager to both do business and assist with the parking situation at this location.”
The site originally held the 1927 Giles House, home for three decades to La Vieille Maison restaurant. The home was bulldozed in 2011 after Irving Litwak fought an attempt to give it a historic preservation label.