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Residents packed a Feb. 1 meeting with Palm Beach County Commissioner Marci Woodward to oppose the county’s plans for the Milani Park site in Highland Beach. They at least want parking spaces on the west side of the project curtailed (below).
Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

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By Rich Pollack

Could the western portion of the controversial Milani Park property in Highland Beach be used for something other than a 40-space-plus parking lot?

That was one of the questions Highland Beach residents asked when more than 250 people, some wearing “No Park” stickers, packed into the town’s library early last month to let

Commissioner Marci Woodward and other Palm Beach County officials know their objections to the planned development of the park.

The suggestions on what to do with the 5.6-acre property that straddles State Road A1A included a wide range of ideas.

Current county plans include building a boardwalk leading to the beach on the east side of the property and installing historical and educational signage. The west side would be used for parking.

Although residents expressed concern about environmental impact and safety issues that a park would create on the east side, the parking lot on the west side of A1A seemed to be the residents’ biggest concern.

One resident suggested just leaving the property vacant and letting it become a natural area. Another suggested transforming it into a neighborhood park, which would have limited parking and benches and other amenities that residents could enjoy after riding their bikes or walking.

Another recommendation, submitted to county leaders in writing, was to use the property for pickleball courts, according to Palm Beach County Parks and Recreation Director Jennifer Cirillo.

Town commissioners, at one of their meetings last month, continued to press for another option: To have the county sell the property for development and use the millions of dollars it receives for other, more pressing projects. The county bought the land from the Milani family for a beachfront park more than 30 years ago for $4 million.

“Palm Beach County could utilize the funds from the sale coupled with funds not used to develop the park to address crucial community needs, including affordable and workforce housing, recreation facilities and parks, or other capital projects throughout Palm Beach County,” said a resolution that passed unanimously.

As part of the town’s push for alternative uses for the property, Mayor Natasha Moore was dispatched to meet with members of the County Commission who represent other districts, to present the town’s position.

Cirillo said that county leaders are listening to the suggestions of residents.

While the idea of using the property for pickleball courts probably isn’t getting much traction, the option of transforming the west side into a neighborhood park hasn’t been totally ruled out. But the idea faces many obstacles before it could be ruled in.

Cirillo said the neighborhood park option hasn’t been discussed by the team that will make recommendations on changes, if any, and pointed out that only one of the county’s 26 neighborhood parks has parking spaces.

Neighborhood parks, she said, draw from a radius of about a half-mile, with visitors coming mostly on foot or by bicycle. Beach parks, she said, generally draw residents from within a seven-mile radius.

Cirillo said that one of the county’s reasons for wanting a park at the Milani site is the lack of county parks in South County.

“There is a county beach park desert where Milani Park exists,” she said, adding that the only county beach parks in South County are South Inlet Park in Boca Raton, Gulfstream Park near Gulf Stream, and Ocean Inlet and Hammock parks in Ocean Ridge.

She said that a recent survey of county residents showed that they put a top priority on more beaches.

“Our purpose with Milani Park is to provide countywide residents with access to the beach,” she said.

While some have suggested that the money from selling the property could be used for parks in the northern portion of the county, Cirillo said that area already has a half-dozen beach parks.

“The location of Milani Park is important,” she said.

Cirillo said she couldn’t comment on whether the county could legally sell the property for development since it was acquired through a voter- approved bond issue, but she does not believe it would be a good idea to sell it for residential development.

“The property was intentionally acquired for a public purpose,” she said. “Ethically, it would be difficult to sell it for another purpose because voters approved the bond issue for recreational and cultural purposes.”

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