By Joe Capozzi
With a unanimous vote Nov. 29, the South Palm Beach Town Council extinguished the idea of including a fire station in plans for a new or renovated Town Hall.
The vote was met with cheers from more than 20 residents who attended the meeting to voice their opposition to a fire station — an idea many of those same residents spoke against Nov. 4 at a charrette hosted by the architectural firm designing options for a new Town Hall.
At that session, councilman Mark Weissman indicated support for including a fire station at Town Hall to replace Palm Beach County Fire Rescue’s cramped station less than a mile down State Road A1A at Manalapan Town Hall.
But, three weeks later, Weissman voted against the idea.
“Quite honestly my goal was to put pressure on Manalapan. They need to do it,’’ he said in an interview after the Nov. 29 meeting, referring to renovation of the station.
Something else happened in the weeks after the charrette that many residents believe influenced Weissman to change his stance: Weissman and councilman Bill LeRoy drew challengers during the qualifying period for the March 2022 election.
The challengers, Monte Berendes and Cindy Furino, were among the residents who attended the Nov. 29 meeting.
“You want to get re-elected, don’t vote for it,’’ one resident yelled just before the council vote.
Residents against the idea say a fire station in South Palm Beach would be too noisy and incompatible with the area.
“Let’s put an end to this talk about a fire station. We don’t need it. We don’t want it,’’ Berendes said Nov. 4. “Amen,’’ replied many of the 30 residents at the meeting that day.
On Nov. 29, Mayor Bonnie Fischer quickly doused the controversial idea before residents could say anything.
“Out of respect to the public outcry,’’ she said, “I make a motion that accommodating fire rescue shall not be any part of a remodel or rebuild of our Town Hall.’’
When the motion passed unanimously a few seconds later, the crowd erupted in cheers.
“A lot of people were confronting them with emails” in the weeks after the Nov. 4 meeting, said Kevin Hall, a resident and condo manager. “I believe they got the message.’’
Less-than-ideal conditions at the Manalapan station are prompting the county to explore options for a new location once fire rescue’s lease there expires in two years.
On Nov. 4, Weissman had warned residents at the charrette that if South Palm Beach rejects a fire station, fire rescue’s “next move will be further south, further from us, further from when you need fire rescue.”
“We have some control over that by saying, ‘How would you like to come here?’ This is a health and safety issue for all of us,’’ he said that day.
Many residents didn’t buy that argument and said Manalapan, with its wealthy tax base, should renovate its fire station.
A fire rescue station in South Palm Beach would have required at least 10,000 square feet, about the same space occupied by the current Town Hall, which is on a narrow strip of land between two condominium buildings.
That would have forced a Town Hall to be built vertically into a multistory building, similar to a previous architect’s plan for a $6 million five-story structure that was vehemently opposed by residents a few years ago as a grandiose “Taj Mahal.’’
Sirens and truck engines would also disrupt residents in condos next to Town Hall, said Berendes, who lives next door in The Brittany.
Ironically, the existing Town Hall’s first use was as a fire station in the 1970s, the first of “three generations” of improvements to the building, said Merrill Romanik, principal architect at Synalovski Romanik Saye, the firm hired for $63,000 to draw up options.
“An addition in the ’90s brought the Town Hall functions. Then another addition expanded the meeting room spaces and the meeting room space we are sitting in today,’’ she said.
The current Town Hall includes a substation for the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, which replaced the town’s police department in 2019. PBSO will be included in a new Town Hall plan.
Many residents who spoke at the charrettes favored a renovation of the existing facility or a limited expansion, including a one-story Town Hall elevated on stilts for protection against sea level rise.
But others felt it was time for something new.
“This building has been Scotch taped together,’’ said Richard Hegarty. “Times are changing. This isn’t the ’60s. It’s not the ’70s or the ’90s. We have to change with it ‘’
The Town Council will have final say over what the new Town Hall will look like, a decision that will be made after SRS hosts more public input meetings in December and January. As of Nov. 29, there were no firm dates for those meetings.
In other business last month:
• Fischer said the new sand that was washed away from the town’s beachfront during king tides will eventually return to the shoreline.
“You’re all wondering where’s the sand and all the money we spent?’’ she said, referring to a recently completed $747,471 beach replenishment project.
“I can assure you the sand is still in the system. And that’s the most important thing,’’ she said. “Slowly you’ll see some sand coming back. It’s not going to be dramatic but the point is it’s there. I would expect some initial recovery within the next few weeks.’’
• The Town Council approved a program to pay the tax bills of qualified senior citizens in town, as part of the Palm Beach County Low-Income Senior Citizen Municipal Tax Exemption program. • The council voted to spend about $67,000 on 45 solar LED lights for town sidewalks.