By Margie Plunkett
The Lantana Town Council set the stage for The Cenacle’s transformation from an Intracoastal spiritual retreat to a luxury resort and spa that would offer repose and tranquility to a new set of patrons.
Despite the objections of neighbors, the council passed an ordinance April 27 to change the land use from residential to commercial, which would open the door for development of the $90 million resort and spa. The sale of the retreat at 1400 S. Dixie Highway, operated by the Catholic Cenacle Sisters, to Palm Beach Resort Partners LLC has not been completed yet, conditioned on the land-use change. The developer promised wary residents a deed restriction that would limit building to the upscale hotel if the sale closes.
The approval of the amended comprehensive plan map begins a 31-day appeals period, followed by public hearings on a zoning change.
Neighbors of The Cenacle crowded into Town Hall during two public hearings — Mayor David Stewart counted 103 for the second hearing — to argue against the change. Many didn’t oppose the hotel, but raised concerns about the process, wanted guarantees that the hotel would be built rather than a different commercial project, and expressed fears that the development would generate noise, traffic and environmental damage. The developer’s representatives gave Lantana residents a preview of the resort, a concept described as a 300-room hotel with restaurants, bars, ballroom, sandy beach and pool on the 10-acre waterfront property and would probably be a four-star resort. The plan itself has not been submitted to the town and isn’t yet under consideration by council.
“We believe the project will provide an enormous boost to the town of Lantana, which under the current conditions is in sore need,” said attorney Al Malefatto of Greenberg Traurig, representing the developer. The project, with buildings ranging from one-and-a-half to five stories, would mean 300 full-time local jobs and $300,000 in tax revenue annually from a property that is not now taxed.
“We want to work with the neighbors to make this fit in, so it’s an asset to Lantana,” Malefatto said. The lawyer promised a deed restriction that would allow only the upscale hotel use after residents voiced fears that if the deal collapses, a strip shopping center or big-box retailer could be built instead.
Greg Kino of Casey Ciklin Lubitz Martens, who spoke on behalf of neighbor James Place residents, said the developer was putting the cart before the horse by enticing residents with the preliminary project yet limiting their comments to the land-use change. He argued for a process that would allow the land-use change and resort plan to be reviewed at the same time. And he added, “The land use is totally incompatible.”
Town Attorney Max Lohman reiterated, “This town does not do concurrent processing. It’s illegal.” Resident Mary Smith said she failed in attempts to confirm whisperings that the resort was going to be part of a W development, owned by Starwood.
“But when I called them, they said they have nothing on their desk about coming here. “It seems like we’re having the wedding before we’ve met the bride,” she said. “If this doesn’t happen, what then?” Mark O’Donnell of James Place said at the second hearing some things could stop the developer: financing, and approval to build above 35-foot height restrictions. “If they don’t get that, they won’t want to build it. If they don’t want to build it, we’re stuck with C1 property.” Noise could be another problem, O’Donnell said, as noise frequently travels across the Intracoastal. Ann Marie Zabroski just bought her South Lake Drive home “because it’s a nice quiet town.” Zabroski, who works from home, said had she known about coming construction, bars, restaurants and added traffic, she would have reconsidered. “It’s just changing the overall nature of the town,” she said. “I think it should stay a low-key Florida town.”
Other residents wondered if there was something special in the resort plan for Lantana residents, like the Ritz in Manalapan where there is a special club and residents are allowed to use the facilities without charge, said resident Judy Black. After each public hearing, Malefatto answered the crowd, noting that the developer doesn’t plan to drive traffic down South Lake, it has all access planned for U.S. 1. Residents will have opportunities at many hearings to weigh in on the resort plans, he said. “All you have to do is say no during the site plan process.”
Malefatto tried to alleviate worry that something other than a high-end resort would go on the property. He pointed out that the value of the property — what the sisters will sell it for — wouldn’t make practical many uses, such as convenience store or an inexpensive motel.
One council member voted against the land-use change after the second public hearing: Vice Mayor Cindy Austino. Elizabeth Tennyson, who was absent for final approval, had voted against it on first reading. Tennyson said during the April 13 meeting, “I’m listening and feeling some of the same issues myself. I don’t really have any assurance of what’s going to happen here.”
While a hotel could be “a really wonderful thing” for a small town like Lantana, Tennyson wondered why they couldn’t consider the land-use change and the hotel plan concurrently. Those who voted yes said they supported a project that would bring jobs in an unforgiving economy and new tax revenue from a previously exempt property.
“Something’s going in there, whether we like it or not,” council member Lynn J. Moorhouse said. “I’d like to see this as much of a class act as it could be,” adding that while he wasn’t supporting the project simply for income, “every town up and down the coast is financially strapped.”
Mayor Stewart said after the final approval of the land-use change, “I feel confident if they don’t do what they say they’re going to do, we can send them home with their tail between their legs.”
As residents filed out of the first public hearing, conversations echoed disappointment, including one voice drifting from the crowd: “I lost all faith here tonight.”
The Cenacle Sisters, who have operated the Cenacle Spiritual Life Center retreat for more than 40 years, are selling because their numbers are declining and the costs of operating the property increasing, the Florida Catholic reported in August. The property was valued at $20 million, the publication said. The Florida Catholic said the sisters were looking for another location in the area.