By Tim O’Meilia

Six months after a win-win truce was declared in the struggle over the future of a six-acre Gulf Stream estate and the demolition of its 75-year-old mansion, a “hole in the sky” has re-opened the battle.

Neighbors of the soon-to-be built Harbour View Estates begged Gulf Stream town commissioners at their May 11 meeting to intervene to force developer Tom Laudani to replace a towering banyan tree bulldozed in late March to make way for the six-home subdivision.

In an agreement to gain the support of nearby Hidden Harbour Drive residents, Laudani and Seaside Builders promised in late 2011 to maintain a 15-foot landscape buffer around the new subdivision instead of the required 3-foot zone and retain the estate’s luxurious canopy. The town signed a separate subdivision agreement with Seaside that did not include the buffer or canopy.

“I can tell the difference between a canopy and the sky and right now I see a hole in the sky,” Hidden Harbour resident Martin O’Boyle told commissioners. “All I want to do is get the canopy back. Can the town step in?”

The banyan’s 30- or 40-foot span of branches shaded part of the buffer but is not part of it. O’Boyle said Laudani told him the developer did nothing wrong. 

“We need to resolve it and we don’t want to sue,” he added.

Resident and lawyer Tom Murphy said the agreement requires that the developer “will maintain the canopy as it is today. Well, that is not as it is today. The banyan was taken down, an historic, huge 40-foot tree,” he said.

Commissioners were sympathetic but did not commit to getting involved in the dispute. Commissioner Muriel Anderson called it “heartbreaking.” Commissioner Garrett Dering wondered what the town could do.

“We feel their concerns and everybody else does, I’m sure,” said Mayor William Koch Jr. 

“We are not the Viet Cong here, coming out at night trying to disrupt the developer,” Murphy said. “We want a banyan of equal size and scope to be put back where it was.”

Town Attorney John Randolph said he didn’t think the town could take legal action against Seaside since it wasn’t a party to the contract. He called Seaside later in May to encourage the developer to cooperate with the neighbors but said Laudani believes the banyan was not part of the canopy.

The removal of the banyan reversed the good vibes generated by the developer/neighbor agreement of late last year. Then O’Boyle praised Laudani for preserving “the values of my property, my neighbors’ and my friends.”

Other than the banyan, Town Manager William Thrasher said inspections by him and the town police show that the site has been kept clean of debris and construction noise has been minimal. 

He said one tree in the buffer was mistakenly removed and another fell in a storm because of termite damage and resulting trunk decay. The developer will replace them. 

The property, locally known as the Spence estate, was designed in the British colonial style by noted Palm Beach architect John Volk and built about 1937 by Seward Webb Jr., a grandson of William Vanderbilt. Webb’s widow sold the estate to typewriter heiress Gladys Underwood James. Eventually it was sold to Edwin and Regina Spence. Mrs. Spence died in December 2010.

At a May 22 special meeting, the commission agreed to change its zoning code to better address subdivisions. If approved by ordinance at later meetings, homes in new subdivisons will be required to be similar in size, shape and character to nearby residences and must submit a landscaping plan to preserve existing vegetation.

No dead-ends or Y- or T-shaped turnaraounds will be allowed. Spence said estate neighbors agreed to a T-shaped turnaround to avoid a street connecting to their neighborhood.

In other business, town consulting engineer Danny Brannon said that FPL had finally assigned an engineer to handle the town’s $5 million utility undergrounding project. 

The revised schedule anticipates construction on phase 1 south of Golfview Drive will begin in October and be completed by mid-October 2013. Phase 2, north of Golfview, will begin in March 2013 and finish in mid-March 2014.                           Ú

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