By Rich Pollack
Highland Beach residents were dealt a setback in their 36-year battle to prevent development of a beachfront park when county commissioners agreed recently to move forward with plans to develop the Milani Park property.
The fight, however, is far from over.
In an August letter to the town, Palm Beach County Administrator Verdenia Baker said that the county will begin the design and permitting process for Milani Park, 5.6 acres that straddle State Road A1A at the south end of town.
The county could have delayed its decision to initiate development for another five years as part of a 2010 settlement agreement with the town that came 23 years after the county bought the property from the Milani family for just under $4 million, but chose not to exercise that option.
News of the county’s decision to move forward spread quickly through Highland Beach, where Milani Park has been a hot topic for decades.
“This is a big deal,” Town Manager Marshall Labadie said. “It’s a big project for a small town and a small project for a big county.”
What Milani Park will look like and when the first shovel will hit the ground are still unknown, but Palm Beach County Parks and Recreation Director Jennifer Cirillo says it will be a few years until all required impact studies and design work are completed and construction can start.
“It’s probably several years into the future,” she said.
Cirillo and County Commissioner Marci Woodward, whose district includes the property, say that conceptual plans for the parcel call for a passive park similar to Ocean Ridge
Hammock Park, about 10 miles to the north in Ocean Ridge.
Like that park, also operated by the county, Milani Park would have parking for a small number of cars — just over 40 — on the west side of A1A and would have boardwalk access to the beach.
Along the boardwalk at Milani Park, which will pass over native Florida vegetation that has been allowed to flourish, would be educational signs about the native habitat as well as about the history of the property, which is believed to have been a native American burial ground.
“It’s going to be more of a nature preservation park,” Woodward said.
Nearby residents say they can live with that concept, especially since earlier plans for the project included more than 100 parking spots on the west side of A1A.
The sticking point for residents is the beach portion of the park, according to Ron Reame, vice president of the board of the Boca Highland Beach Club & Marina, which is adjacent to the property on the west side.
“We’re not really in favor of anything on the beach,” he said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
Reame said that the beach is not very wide during high tide and includes the Yamato Rock formation, which can be hidden and hazardous to those not familiar with it.
“If you make it a public beach, it will be dangerous,” he said. “It’s such a small area.”
Under the preliminary conceptual plan, the beach will not have a lifeguard or restrooms, at least as part of the first phase of development.
Reame said there is also a concern with beachgoers leaving the public park and entering private property to the north and south.
“This is more acceptable than the original proposal but it’s still something a lot of residents won’t support,” he said.
If final plans include beach access, Milani Park will offer the only public beach access in Highland Beach.
Beach access, Cirillo said, is one of the main reasons the county wants to go ahead with development of the park, since the county’s comprehensive plan requires a specific ratio of beach access countywide to population and as the population grows, additional beach access is needed.
Town Commissioner Evalyn David, who lives in the Boca Highland community, says she’s also concerned about traffic and pedestrian safety with beachgoers having to cross A1A.
“We want to make sure that traffic flows freely in our town and all our safety concerns are met,” she said.
Both Cirillo and Woodward say they want to work with town residents.
“There’s definitely room for discussion on how the beach access will work,” Woodward said.
Cirillo says the town and the county will also need to discuss updating 43 conditions placed by the town in the settlement order. Among those are requirements that people pay a fee for parking and that a parking attendant is present.
“This is a unique property and we want this to be a community project,” she said. “We like to be good neighbors.”