The pool at Wellington Arms, a gathering point for residents, looks out over the lagoon and mangroves to the west. The lagoon is home to manatees, manta rays and a variety of birds. Jerry Lower/ The Coastal Star
By Dan Moffett
Judy Hollnagel had a long and successful business career in Milwaukee, but she never made a better deal than the one she struck in Ocean Ridge during a Florida vacation back in 1968.
Hollnagel heard about a condo project under construction across from Oceanfront Park and decided its prime location between the ocean and Intracoastal Waterway was worth an investment.
“I put down $100,” she said. “That’s what things were going for back then. We’ve had a place here ever since.”
The three concrete buildings with 49 units would become known as the Wellington Arms Condominiums. Judy and Harold Hollnagel would become known as the first family of the close-knit condo community.
From their third-floor bedroom window, the couple can look out and see the glistening Atlantic waters and the Oceanfront Park beach. From their back door, they can see a mangrove-rich lagoon sanctuary for a thriving array of wildlife.
“Every morning I wake up to see the sunrise over the ocean,” Judy said. “What could be better than that? Then I walk back there to the lagoon. It’s a magical place.”
The waters are a little darker, more brackish now than upon her first arrival a half-century ago, but Hollnagel still finds plenty of magic in the lagoon: manatees mating, manta rays patrolling the docks, mullet thrashing across the surface and an Audubon guidebook’s worth of wetland birds taking it all in from above.
The human species is on display by the lagoon, too — neighbors grilling fish for neighbors, and grandparents teaching their grandchildren how to catch dinner or how to keep a kayak from going sideways.
“It’s a piece of paradise,” Hollnagel said. “I can’t say enough.”
Last spring, Wellington Arms residents marked the community’s 50th anniversary with a lively get-together by the swimming pool overlooking the lagoon. Stories about their long shared history gave way to worries about an uncertain future.
Four years ago, William Swaim, of Waterfront ICW Properties in Delray Beach, came forward with a plan to fill in submerged land he owns adjacent to their properties and under the Wellington Arms boat docks. In a suit filed against homeowners along the lagoon, he’s demanded they remove their docks or agree to a deal to pay him for their use. Part of the deal would include ending their opposition to his development plans and retracting public objections they’ve made to state officials — especially environmental objections. Swaim also has taken the town of Ocean Ridge to court, asserting the right to an easement for a road next to the Town Hall to gain access to his land. In September, Swaim applied for a permit with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, seeking permission to truck in fill material to the 3.34-acre site and begin building three single-family houses.
A decision on the permit request likely is months away. Ocean Ridge officials and residents along the lagoon have been vocal in their opposition to the permit application and development plan.
“Without a doubt, we will be pointing out all of the issues with Mr. Swaim trying to do something back there,” Town Attorney Brian Shutt said during an October commission meeting. “There are things we can point out to the Army Corps.”
Said Mayor James Bonfiglio: “We will do everything that’s required to voice the objections. … We’ll do everything we can to help residents end the problem.”
Residents pleaded with officials to do more.
“We need your help,” Wellington Arms resident Phil Lambrechts told the Town Commission. “We need to get this ended.”
Lambrechts said residents along the lagoon have spent some $700,000 in legal fees fighting the plan, and most of that came from the condominium owners.
“Our community spent almost three-quarters of a million dollars now on lawsuits in the last three years,” Wellington Arms resident Jay Magee told commissioners. “And we’re just a small community. It’s a hardship for a lot of the owners.”
The legal fight centers on whether the lagoon is a naturally occurring waterway that deserves preservation or rather a manmade creation that does not. Swaim’s attorneys have argued the latter, saying bulldozers and dredges carved the lagoon out decades ago to create a mosquito control area.
Environmental groups have joined the town’s homeowners in rejecting that assertion, arguing the lagoon is an irreplaceable natural treasure.
The courts have appeared to be leaning both ways so far. In 2015, an administrative law judge in Tallahassee sided with South Florida Water Management District attorneys and cited environmental concerns and potential impediments to boaters as reasons for denying Swaim’s requests. In 2017, a mediation judge issued a judgment opinion that appeared to support Swaim, concluding parts of the lagoon were created by human activity and potentially not protected as sovereign state land.
“We lost and it’s devastating to the town,” condo resident Pat Ganley told commissioners after last year’s court hearing. “We need you to help. So fight it.”
Ocean Ridge is not alone when it comes to disputes with Swaim over submerged land. Two years ago, he sued the State of Florida and five fiber optic companies claiming they are trespassing on 2.5 acres he bought in the Intracoastal north of Lake Wyman in Boca Raton. Swaim accuses the state of wrongly allowing the companies easements. He wants the firms to pull out their cables and pay him damages.
Swaim also irked town of Palm Beach officials two years ago when he petitioned the Corps for permission to fill in some three acres of Intracoastal land he was considering buying about three-quarters of a mile south of the Lake Worth Bridge. The Corps has not issued a decision.
ABOVE: Residents have floating docks that give them boat, kayak and paddleboard access to the lagoon and Intracoastal. Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star BELOW: An old aerial photo shows the vacant land that became Wellington Arms. BOTTOM: A scene from the condo’s 50th birthday celebration last March. Photos provided
Residents stick together
In their condominium’s 50th year, residents say they are committed to protecting their community and are as close to each other as ever.
“It’s like a dorm,” said a smiling Judy Hollnagel.
Her friend Nadine Magee, Jay’s wife, put it this way: “It’s like … cooking someone else’s Thanksgiving turkey in your oven because it’s bigger and better. That’s literally the way people are here.”
Without the iconic lagoon, Wellington Arms wouldn’t be what it has been for five decades and Florida would lose forever another little piece of itself.
“It’d be a shame to see anything else out there but the manatees, the birds and the fish,” said Connie Sophie, an avid kayaker. “It means a lot to me.”
“It’s just a wonderful natural sanctuary,” Hollnagel said.