By Cheryl Blackerby
Chastened by a losing court fight against a grassroots citizens group, Boca Raton City Council members are moving at warp speed to pass a new ordinance that will prohibit private uses of public beaches and waterfront land.
“I think we all will join hands in kumbaya and introduce this ordinance,” said Boca Mayor Susan Whelchel as the council unanimously approved the first reading of the new law on Jan. 8.
But not so fast. Arthur Koski, attorney for the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District, says board members aren’t giving up their legal options to possibly contest the ordinance in the future. During a Jan. 22 board meeting, Koski said he is drafting a letter to the City Council for February’s second reading of the ordinance that says the district’s silence shouldn’t be misconstrued.
“I don’t want the lack of action by the district to suggest that we agree to consent to it,” Koski said.
With final approval in February, the city will avoid having to schedule a court-ordered referendum to decide the matter. The council’s approval is a victory for Keep Your Boca Beaches Public, a citizens group that sued the city and the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District over plans to allow the development of a private beach club on the public 15-acre Ocean Strand property.
“I’m confident it will pass in February and be unanimous,” said Joe Pedalino, chairperson of Keep Your Boca Beaches Public. “We’re not naive enough to believe that some future council couldn’t reverse it, but the ordinance would give the citizens time to oppose it.”
As far as the district’s letter, Pedalino says he “completely expected that” and isn’t worried.
“I don’t see that as a problem,” he said. “Anybody at any time can go to court. Decisions are never absolute, but as far as we’re concerned, it’s a done deal.”
Pedalino said the ordinance will benefit all residents in the city, not just coastal homeowners, because it will protect all public waterfront parks and lands from private development.
“It’s quality of life in Boca Raton, and our parks and beaches are an integral part of quality of life,” he said. “As it stands now, we’re very pleased by the action taken by the city. This is the right thing to do.”
The ordinance says that “all public-owned lands owned by the city and the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District located between the Intracoastal Waterway and Atlantic Ocean shall be limited to public uses and public services provided for the general public, and development for private uses (including members-only beach clubs) on these public-owned lands shall be prohibited.”
The explicit reference to “members-only beach clubs” put smiles on the faces of the citizen activists.
In September, the Fourth District Court of Appeal unanimously upheld a lower court ruling that required the city to go forward with a citizens’ initiative and put the issue on the ballot. The citizens group had collected more than 1,500 signatures calling for the referendum to bar development of public lands in general and stop the Ocean Strand project in particular.
The Beach and Park District bought the Ocean Strand in 1994 for $11.9 million, and the prime beachfront property that stretches between the Intracoastal Waterway and ocean had remained undeveloped until 2009 when Penn-Florida Companies proposed the members-only cabana club as part of a $1 billion downtown redevelopment and hotel project.
After a public outcry, city officials responded by changing the zoning of the Strand from multi-family to public land, which ended the development plans for the property. City and district officials argued that the new zoning eliminated the need for an ordinance and that council members shouldn’t pass a law that might restrict the options of future city leaders.
They also criticized the citizens’ group for making unreasonable demands and pushing a court fight that was costly for city taxpayers. They said holding the referendum could cost the city as much as $70,000.
“We were criticized that the city and district were spending money to fight this, like we were the culprits, ” Pedalino said. “It’s our money anyway. It’s not coming out of their pockets.”
The citizens’ group and its lawyers argued that the prohibition of private development needed to be citywide and codified. They said that the issue was much bigger than the Strand and much broader than just the beaches.
Pedalino said that “since there was an attempt to do one beach, they could do others,” and passing the ordinance was essential.
“We wanted to have everything clarified,” Pedalino said. “We wanted to make sure there was no private de-velopment on public lands.”