By Tim O’Meilia Thirty-three years ago Bonnie Fischer found the dream retirement home — an affordable first-floor oceanfront condominium apartment at Imperial House with a view of a beach several hundred feet wide. In mid-November, an angry north wind sent churning waves one after another onto that shrinking beach, clawing through a temporary wall of three-ton blocks and undermining a walkway that ran along the seaside building. “I had ocean spray hitting my sliding glass doors and my bedroom windows,” Fischer said. “It’s way too close.” The Atlantic Ocean is taking back the beach.
Fearing the waves might undermine the building, Police Chief Roger Crane ordered the residents of the 18 east-wing apartments to evacuate. Fischer spent two nights away from home. Engineers later found that the 50-year-old building was erected on pilings, rather than a less-ocean-proof concrete foundation more susceptible to surf damage. The winds decreased, the occupants returned and huge boulders were deposited over the following three days to reinforce the temporary wall. “The walkway started pulling away from the building but the building was never compromised,” said Fischer, a member of the Imperial House board of directors. Now the six-story, 58-unit Imperial House faces a more imposing task: erecting a $500,000 permanent sea wall before the turtle-nesting season begins April 1 or before the next winter northeaster’ threatens the co-op. “The issue is we’re at the eleventh hour,” said resident Anthony Carella, former secretary of the co-op’s board of directors. “The erosion of the coastline is not slowing up.” The Imperial House has assessed its shareholders for the cost and has state permits in hand to begin the work in mid-December, but needs a path to get construction equipment and materials on to the beach. That is proving to be more difficult than erecting the sea wall. The closest and most logical access is through the town of Lantana’s beach, immediately south of the Imperial House. But, Lantana wants the co-op to pay $213,500 for access, the extra cost the town incurred in 2008 when it erected a sea wall to protect its beach and then wasn’t able to connect to the co-op’s planned sea wall. The town had to re-engineer the sea wall plans, change its permit and build an additional section to the wall and doesn’t want to stick its taxpayers with the extra cost. The Mayfair House, a 223-unit condominium five buildings north of the Imperial House, also wants to use the Lantana access to move a construction crane off the beach when its $1.6 million sea wall is finished. Work has yet to begin. Lantana town commissioners want a $75,000 fee for access over its dune. Lantana commissioners gave both condos until Dec. 14 to work out an arrangement. Neither building says it can afford the cost. “$75,000 for interrupting their beach?” said Mayfair House President John Vivenzio. “Clearly, we’re not going to do that.” “We can’t afford to do that and we can’t afford not to,” said Imperial House’s Fischer. “They have us over a barrel.” Vivenzio said the Mayfair may have to devise a method of building the sea wall from the western side. He was critical of the town of South Palm Beach for not offering support for the condos. No South Palm Beach town commissioner attended a Nov. 23 meeting with Lantana commissioners and condo representatives. “Their attitude is ‘We have no dog in this fight,’” Vivenzio said. “We’re the lowest point on A1A. If the Mayfair House goes, A1A goes. It’s a beach town. Without a beach, you have no town.” Imperial House has already assessed its residents to the max — for the sea wall, hurricane windows, new paint and other improvements. “If we don’t do it, the building is going to be permanently damaged and we don’t have the money to do it,” Carella said. The Imperial House applied for a state permit in 2008 but disagreements among its board and with its engineers delayed the project. “We had no contract or handshake agreement with Lantana” to install its sea wall last year when Lantana did, he said. Fischer and Carella said the building is investigating whether Lantana can legally prevent the Imperial House from using an old state right of way to reach the beach and move its equipment. “All it takes is one northeastern storm to make its way down here and cause havoc,” Fischer said. “The sound of the ocean waves is not soothing to me anymore.”