By Mary Hladky
A referendum preserving city-owned land along the Intracoastal Waterway for public use gained wide approval from residents in all parts of the city when they voted in the Nov. 8 election.
A precinct-by-precinct breakdown of votes compiled by the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections shows the referendum did not fail in any of the 37 precincts where ballots were cast. Voters approved the measure by more than 70 percent in 11 precincts. The lowest favorable vote was 58 percent, recorded in two precincts.
Voters in the western edges of the city supported the referendum by margins generally equal to those who live near the Intracoastal.
Overall, the initiative won a whopping 67 percent of the vote.
It limits use of city-owned land on the waterway primarily to public recreation and boating access, effectively torpedoing City Council plans to lease 2.3 acres along the Intracoastal just north of the Palmetto Park Road bridge to the Hillstone Restaurant Group for a restaurant.
City resident James Hendrey, who spearheaded the citizens’ initiative, said he was “delighted” with the result.
Although optimistic the initiative would pass, Hendrey said he didn’t expect such a landslide vote because powerful and well-financed interests wanted the referendum to fail.
“They confused the voting audience,” Hendrey said. “We feel if they had not spent the amount they did trying to cloud the issue, the number would have been significantly higher.
“They don’t see that people are tired of development,” he added. “It is such an overwhelming win for the people.”
With the vote results in, Hendrey threw down the gauntlet when he addressed the City Council at its Nov. 22 meeting.
“All of you representing the development interests in this city, get on board” with the results, he said.
Council member Robert Weinroth, who opposed the referendum, said it passed because it seemed intended to protect park space citywide from commercial development.
“It is basically like apple pie. We want a park,” he said. “The way it was presented to voters made it appear there might be something afoot, that we were contemplating developing the areas that are recreation or park land, but that was not the case.”
With the referendum’s approval, the city will not be able to lease the former Wildflower property to Hillstone, he said.
“I have heard from the attorney representing Hillstone. They understand the passing of the referendum has essentially ended the possibility of us entering into a lease with them,” Weinroth said.
Under the terms of the deal the city was hammering out with Hillstone, the city would have reaped as much as $33 million from a 45-year lease for the land, which has sat vacant for seven years.
Now, the city could potentially face a lawsuit if Hillstone decides to pursue a claim for damages. An attorney for Hillstone did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“I certainly accept the will of the voters,” Weinroth said. “Notwithstanding the fact I was against the referendum and thought the city was going in the right direction with a waterfront venue, with a 2-1 margin the voters have spoken and we will go accordingly.”
Troy McLellan, president and CEO of the Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce, which also opposed the referendum, agreed with Weinroth that voters read the referendum to mean, “let’s not develop on city-owned waterfront land. That sounds positive.”
But the vote in favor could also affect what the city can do with the just over 200 acres of other waterfront land it owns.
“That makes it very challenging for elected officials,” McLellan said.
They can abide by the exact wording of the referendum, which would result in no commercial use of any of that land. Or, he said, council members could interpret the wording so that, for example, they might decide a hot dog stand or a Starbucks is an amenity that serves park patrons.
Regardless of what decision they make, McLellan sees a “missed opportunity” to have a waterfront restaurant and for the city to receive a return on investment for the $7.5 million spent on the Wildflower property.
“I think it is disappointing for this community not to have a waterfront restaurant on the Intracoastal Waterway in a downtown that is thriving,” he said.
By Mary Hladky