By Rich Pollack

Highland Beach’s battle to stop the controversial Milani Park was dealt a pair of powerful blows in April, with county leaders saying they are developing the park based on 15-year-old town approvals — and with the Milani family blessing the county’s decision.

For decades town residents have been fighting development of the 5.6-acre beachfront site which the Milani family sold to the county for use as a park in 1987 for $3.9 million.

While previous county commissions have put off a decision on building the park after a settlement agreement was reached following a legal battle over the property, current county leaders announced last summer that they would go forward — a move that touched off another drive by Highland Beach residents and officials to prevent development.

After months of back and forth, including an often-contentious community meeting, county leaders have said the town’s efforts to stop the park are futile.

“No park is not an option,” said County Commissioner Marci Woodward, whose district includes Highland Beach and encompasses the park site.

In a letter to Highland Beach residents sent late last month, County Parks & Recreation Director Jennifer Cirillo and Facilities Development and Operations Director Isami Ayala-Collazo said that the wheels are in motion to develop the park with full amenities including more than 100 parking spaces, public restrooms and a lifeguard station. The site straddles State Road A1A in the south end of town.

“This letter serves the primary purpose of notifying community stakeholders that county staff is proceeding with development of Cam D. Milani Park as per the town-approved site plan, development order and SSA (stipulated settlement agreement),” the letter said. “Notwithstanding the constraints imposed by the aforementioned documents, our commitment to work with the surrounding community remains intact.”

That letter appears to negate a previously discussed compromise offered by the county that would have reduced the number of parking spots to 40 and removed the restrooms and lifeguard station from the site.

Woodward and Cirillo say that compromise was withdrawn after Highland Beach commissioners passed a resolution in February urging the county to sell the property to developers rather than build a park.

“It seems like lines have been drawn,” Woodward said.

Is compromise possible?
But while Woodward said she didn’t know what a compromise would look like and Cirillo said such a decision would not be coming from her office, Highland Beach hopes a compromise is still possible.

Town Manager Marshall Labadie says the town is open to compromise.

“The resolution doesn’t say anything in absolute terms that we are not willing to compromise,” he said.

While he acknowledges that the county has the right to develop the property it owns in accordance with the settlement agreement that followed legal challenges, he questions whether the decision to move forward is coming from Woodward and county staff as opposed to the full County Commission.

“We would hope they would put it as an agenda item and have a discussion of the project in public,” he said.

Woodward says it is not necessary to have the issue come before the commission again since a previous commission voted in 2019 to move forward with the project.

Mayor Natasha Moore, in a note to Highland Beach residents following the arrival of the recent county letter, said the lack of public involvement is “deeply concerning.”

“It gives the appearance of decisions being made without proper due process and transparency which goes against the principles of our ‘government in the sunshine’ laws,” she wrote.

Road trip in works
Moore urged residents to join her and other town commissioners at the County Commission’s May 7 meeting with hopes of giving the full board of seven commissioners a chance to hear their concerns.

To encourage attendance, the town has arranged for two buses to take residents to the meeting.

Among the concerns the town hopes to share are traffic problems as well as security and the safety of those who would be crossing A1A as they walk from the parking lot to the beach.

Ron Reame, president of the Boca Highland Beach Club and Marina, which borders the west portion of the park site, said he believes residents would accept a compromise if there must be a park.

“We don’t want a park but if you’re telling us we have to have something, then what’s the best alternative for us,” he said.

Family supports park plan
While Labadie and Reame say they hope a compromise on the scope of development is still on the table, Milani family members have let county leaders know that they hope the park will be developed in accordance with the 15-year-old settlement agreement.

Tom Carney, the attorney for Lucia Milani and her family, wrote Woodward that the family has always wanted the property to be a public park named after Lucia’s husband, Cam, who died in 1986.

“Mrs. Milani is urging that the county decide in favor of the provisions set forth in the settlement agreement which would allow the greatest use of the park by the public and not agree with the Town of Highland Beach that the use of this park should be severely limited by creating only a few parking spaces,” wrote Carney, who is also the mayor of Delray Beach.

Woodward says that even without a compromise, much of what has been discussed regarding the portion of the property on the east side of A1A will be preserved.

The parcel includes what is believed to be a native American burial ground as well as native vegetation.

“There are a number of concerns we can address to protect it,” she said.

Woodward says that the proposal by Highland Beach to have the county sell the land, which the town had appraised at over $45 million, would go against the will of residents who approved a bond issue decades ago that included funding for the park.

“This land belongs to all the people of Palm Beach County,” she said.

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