By Tim O’Meilia

A heated argument between the South Palm Beach mayor and a council member ignited an extended round of shouting and catcalling from residents who attended the July 27 Town Council meeting.

At the center of it all: the Palm Beach Oceanfront Inn.

By the time the four-hour meeting concluded, the council denied an appeal by the owners of the 58-unit motel to operate watercraft and the council tentatively approved placing two charter questions on the March 8 ballot that would limit the inn’s expansion, if approved. All by 3-2 votes.

The dispute began when Councilwoman Stella Jordan tried to block Mayor Martin Millar from allowing a lawyer for the inn to plead the watercraft case directly to the council. Town Manager Rex Taylor and Town Attorney Brad Biggs had previously denied several attempts by the inn to obtain permission to operate watercraft.

Jordan asked for a motion to put the vice mayor in charge of the meeting, but Millar said, “I will not pass the gavel. Over my dead body.”

The argument raged for 20 minutes and audience members shouted and hooted, primarily at Jordan. Police Chief Roger Crane escorted one woman away from the dais after she approached Jordan’s seat.

Inn attorney Eric Christu argued that the motel was entitled to operate the watercraft as part of its state-recognized riparian rights. Biggs’ opinion was that allowing the watercraft operation was an expansion of the motel’s use and not allowed because the motel, the only commercial building in town, is a non-conforming use and expanding a non-conforming use is prohibited.

“So, anything they want to let people do: go in a canoe, ride a bicycle, is an expansion?” asked Christu.

Millar and Councilman Brian Merbler’s support of the appeal was defeated by Jordan, Vice Mayor Donald Clayman and Councilwoman Susan Lillybeck.

The same voting division held true on the two proposed charter changes. Jordan argued that a charter vote would put the issue in the hands of the voters rather than in the council’s. Twice since 2005, the council has turned down proposals to convert the hotel into a luxury hotel-condominium of more than 10 stories.

One change would limit buildings east of A1A to a 60-foot height, not including a one-story ground-floor garage. The other would prohibit new non-residential uses and ban the expansion of current non-residential uses, except public buildings.

Millar noted that both items are already in the town’s land use plan and zoning code. “Your whole intention is to target the Palm Beach Oceanfront Inn,” he said.

Christu, the inn’s lawyer, said neither Jordan nor Lillybeck should be allowed to vote on the issue, claiming they have a conflict of interest. Both live next to the motel. Christu said both spearheaded opposition to the motel expansion as members of SPB Preservation Inc. Both have denied being members.

In other business, the council set a tentative tax rate of $4.50 per $1,000 of taxable property value and agreed to schedule a workshop to discuss budget details. No date was set. Tax rates can be lowered before final approval in September but not increased.

Taylor, the town manager, proposed a budget based on a 4.3174 tax rate. The town’s property values fell 14.3 percent from last year. The manager proposed no pay or cost-of-living increases for town employees and the elimination of one police officer position, leaving the force with eight. Taylor recently fired a 10-year officer and the position will not be filled.

“I will guarantee it will not go down,” said Millar, who voted against the tentative tax rate. “I don’t see anyone on this council lowering that millage rate.”

The town’s present rate is $7.65, but next year the cost of fire-rescue service will not be included in the town budget. Taxpayers will be billed separately. Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue has proposed a 3.4581 rate for next year. For comparison, the combined rate of 7.7755 is 1.6 percent higher than the present rate.

The town would collect about $300,000 less in property tax next year, not including fire-rescue costs. Taylor said taxpayers would pay $165 less on average.

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