By Joel Engelhardt
As Palm Beach County’s population grows, the share of public beaches for every resident drops.
And that makes it hard for the county to meet its target to have 0.18 acres of developed beach access for every 1,000 residents.
In fact, the county is hovering at 0.19 per 1,000 residents. Just over its goal.
And even though the county has three potential beach properties to add to its holdings — including the 5.6 acres at Milani Park in Highland Beach — the objective written into the county’s comprehensive growth plan is under review.
“We are on the cusp of being deficient on developed park acreage,” said Jennifer Cirillo, the county’s director of parks and recreation.
Referring specifically to Milani, which Highland Beach has asked to be sold off for private development, Cirillo added: “At this point everything we have will be needed.”
But applying an arbitrary standard to justify a public beach, whether merited or not, does not make sense, said state Rep. Peggy Gossett-Seidman, R-Highland Beach.
“It appears they’re just playing with numbers to achieve an arbitrary goal that doesn’t really serve the population in a commonsense way,” Gossett-Seidman said. “This park isn’t going to make that big a difference. It’s tiny. It’s a drop of water in a bathtub of parks.”
Palm Beach County has 296 acres of developed beach park with the potential to top 390 acres. The biggest county-owned beachfront property that has not yet been developed, Karen Marcus Park in the Jupiter area, would add about 70 acres.
County staff has lined up money to design improvements to the park but not the estimated $10 million to do the work.
The Milani property, which straddles State Road A1A, offers a great opportunity, said one Highland Beach resident who lives nearby and opposes a public park on the land.
“Better to sell it and use the money elsewhere,” said Ron Reame, president of the condo association at neighboring Dalton Place.
Residents have voiced concerns about safety and privacy, and Town Manager Marshall Labadie says he has “not met a single person in town who is in favor of this project.”
The public will get a chance to speak out Feb. 1, when county leaders including Commissioner Marci Woodward will host an outreach meeting at the Highland Beach library.
What future might hold
While some counties have no real standard for developed beachfront, Palm Beach County has kept a standard even after the state Legislature made such thresholds optional in 2010.
The figure provides a benchmark, county officials say, for comparing the county’s level of service against other cities and counties nationwide.
Broward County doesn’t specify how it is doing in providing beachfront parks but instead loops beaches into its count of overall parks, both small and large. Broward’s goal is 3 acres of parkland for every 1,000 residents.
Palm Beach County has 471 acres of beachfront parks, of which 296 acres are developed. That means the county has done construction, often to install bathrooms or showers, and continues to maintain those amenities.
The county’s acreage calculations do not include city or state parks.
It’s possible to add more beachfront — with money. Beachfront makes up some of the most expensive land in the county and it would be cost prohibitive for the county to start buying up huge swaths of beach now.
Yet the population continues to grow, topping 1.52 million and projected by the University of Florida to hit 1.64 million in 2030 and 1.77 million in 2045.
So that leaves the county with the land it owns now: Milani Park’s 5.6 acres, the 70 acres at Karen Marcus Park and the 21-acre Coral Cove South in Tequesta.
Once those three parks are developed, barring a gift of waterfront land or a shift in spending practices, the county would have about 393 acres of developed beachfront land.
Just adding Milani and Karen Marcus Park would push the ratio to 0.24 acres per 1,000 residents at today’s population and to 0.20 based on the 2045 population.
Adding Coral Cove South would push the number even higher in 2045, to 0.22 acres per 1,000 residents.
But those numbers could shift because county officials plan to weed out beachfront acreage that no longer can be counted as developed.
The county also has the option of lowering its target or eliminating it altogether.
There’s risk involved in that approach as well.
“Beaches are the most important feature of Florida’s brand, accounting for 25.5% of the state’s attractiveness to visitors,” a 2015 study by the Florida Office of Economic and Demographic Research found.
The variables make it hard for those opposing Milani Park to sympathize with the county’s position.
“If the population doubles in 20 years and there is no more land available, I guess what we’ll do then is we’ll change the standard,” Highland Beach resident Reame said. “What really makes sense here?”
The county bought the property from the Milani family in 1987 for just $4 million with the family’s proviso that it become a park. It has remained vacant for decades, first tied up in a legal battle and settlement and then remaining dormant as county leaders kept deferring decisions on development.
Rich Pollack contributed to this story.