By Rich Pollack
Highland Beach commissioners have reluctantly agreed to settle a lawsuit stemming from actions by the town’s planning board dating back to 2017 and involving the height of boat lift pilings.
As part of the settlement, the owner of waterfront property agrees to reduce the height of 10 wood pilings from 12 feet high to 7 feet and the town agrees not to enforce its contention that the pilings should be no more than 4 feet tall.
In addition, the property owner, 1006 Grand Court LLC and Richard Touchette also agree to pay $2,500 for the town’s legal fees.
At a meeting last month, town commissioners voted 4-1 to approve the settlement with Commissioner Evalyn David casting the no vote.
Even the commissioners who voted to approve the settlement did so with reservations, understanding that some residents in the Boca Highland Beach Club and Marina fear the loss of their view should a large boat be placed on the lift.
In voting against a settlement, David said she thinks it sends a wrong message to the community.
“We need to say you can’t interfere with the quiet and enjoyment of someone else’s property,” she said
Mayor Doug Hillman, who like David lives in the Boca Highland community, noted that the property owner will be cutting 5 feet off the current pilings, which will then be just 3 feet higher than the town’s request.
“It’s not perfect but we don’t live in a perfect world,” he said. “Compromises have to be made.”
Hillman and Vice Mayor Natasha Moore used the case to re-emphasize the importance of town boards’ doing due diligence before making decisions.
“The proper research has to be done before a vote comes to the board,” Hillman said.
In the case of 1006 Grand Court, the town’s planning board twice approved the project as early as 2017, but the town’s building department stopped construction from continuing once 12-foot-tall pilings were installed.
When the property owner came back to the planning board and asked to be allowed to keep the pilings at 12 feet, the request was denied.
The planning board later denied the owner’s request to have the pilings at 7 feet, which led to an appeal to Palm Beach County Circuit Court.
In court filings, the lawyer for the property owners said part of the problem is that the town code addresses the height of dock pilings but not boat-lift pilings.
“The confusion arose because the initial application showed four-foot pilings for the dock which the town assumed also applied to the pilings for the boat lift,” attorney Scott Weires wrote.
Town Manager Marshall Labadie said that part of the problem was that the town, which has a full-time planner on staff now, did not have one at the time.
“This should have been caught but it wasn’t,” he said.
The town is in the process of amending the code to address the height of boat-lift pilings, he said.
“This is an unfortunate circumstance,” Commissioner John Shoemaker said. “It shouldn’t have happened but it did.”