Boca Raton: Public input scuttles talk of boat launches at Rutherford Park

By Steve Plunkett

Boaters and landlubbers alike appear to have put the kibosh on a proposal to add boat launches at Rutherford Park.

Only one person held up his hand signaling a desire to proceed at the end of a crowded outreach session Feb. 26 at the Downtown Library. 

“Who will be accountable for the opinions that you’ve heard here today, which is 99 to 1?” asked the boater who sought the show of hands.

Dan Grippo, the city’s municipal services director, said his department would carefully consider the input.

“Clearly no one here wants boat ramps, so it probably won’t go anywhere,” Grippo said. “Typically, from my experience here in six years, when the public speaks out, you tend to get what you want in the projects we’re in charge of.  … If you don’t want them, trust me, they don’t happen.”

The evening started off calmly, with consultant Mike Jenkins of Applied Technology and Management Inc. polling the room to determine that more than half the 150 attendees owned a boat, perhaps a quarter owned a kayak or paddleboard.

Jenkins went through the concept: adding two double boat launches to a centrally located spoil island in the park, along with a bridge to reach the island, converting the parking area to accommodate 67 boat trailers and seven cars without trailers, adding three boat wash-down areas.

Few residents were impressed.

“I don’t want to spend 2 miles of idle speed coming down to get to Palmetto Park Road and then go outside.  … That trip would add 20 minutes … each way,” said Bill Trinka, who wanted assurances that the double launch at Silver Palm Park would remain where it is.

Over and over, residents asked about Silver Palm. Jennifer Bistyga, the city’s coastal program manager, tried with little success to keep the discussion on Rutherford Park, the announced topic of the evening. While the session was open to the public at large, at the City Council’s direction Bistyga had made an effort to invite all Boca Raton boaters who held Silver Palm launch permits. 

Other residents were concerned about effects on the environment. Michele Peel, president of the Friends of Gumbo Limbo, cautioned that the proposed boat launches would be right across from the nature center.

“This is Gumbo Limbo’s backyard,” she said. “People come to get close to nature … to see animals that are living over in the … area, animals that are not compatible with having an active, motorized boat launch there. Those animals will disappear.” 

Still other concerns were raised about how boaters would ignore markings leading to the main Intracoastal Waterway channel 450 feet away and take shortcuts over seagrass, how trailer traffic would clog Northeast 24th Street and Federal Highway, and whether boaters and paddleboarders could coexist close by.

Bistyga passed out a survey for residents to fill out but did not have to go far to advise the City Council about what happened. Mayor Susan Haynie, Deputy Mayor Jeremy Rodgers and council members Scott Singer and Andrea O’Rourke were quietly watching the proceedings.

Overall, the gathering gave a collective thumbs-up to plans to remove exotic plants and restore Rutherford’s boardwalk and canoe trails. Several people complained about homeless people congregating in the park.

Gene Folden, chairman of the marine advisory board, said “it’s hard to say” how representative the session was of the city’s overall boating community, but that attendees had made their point.

“Their message was, they like their Silver Palm Park,” Folden said. 

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