By Dan Moffett

    Just about everyone in South Palm Beach was caught off guard last August when Paragon Acquisition Group got the town’s blessing for a plan to develop the Oceanfront Inn site.

    The revised design sailed through the approval process virtually overnight. There was little debate, next to no public comment and only one public hearing — even though the fate of the property had been a source of heated disagreement for years.

    How could this happen?

    Simple. 

    Paragon submitted a plan that was totally compliant with the town’s building rules, conforming to the height limits in particular. The developer presented the plan to the town’s Architectural Review Board, which felt obliged to approve it, with a 3-0 vote.

    Paragon got the green light without having to make its case before the Town Council. Residents and council members alike were surprised that elected officials would not have the final say, and they questioned the process.

    “There was a misunderstanding,” Vice Mayor Joseph Flagello said. “The council misunderstood it, as well as many residents.”

    “People were astonished that it didn’t return to the council,” Councilwoman Stella Gaddy Jordan said.

    South Palm Beachers had grown so used to seeing development disputes fought out during stormy Town Council meetings that quiet compliance was hard to take. But because Paragon needed no waivers or variances and had nothing to appeal, the council was left watching on the sidelines.

    At their Feb. 24 meeting, council members gave unanimous preliminary approval to an ordinance that changes the way the town approves building projects. Under the proposed new rules, the Architectural Review Board and the Planning Board will function in advisory roles only, reviewing projects and then making recommendations. Final approval for site plans and variances will require majority votes from the Town Council.

    “The Town Council now will become the final decision-making body on both of those issues,” Town Attorney Brad Biggs said of the proposed changes. Any appeals to the council’s decisions then would go directly to circuit court, Biggs said.

    Michael Nevard, who has chaired the architectural board for five years, says he, too, mistakenly believed that the Town Council already had the power to approve or disapprove all projects. He said the architectural and planning boards should do “the donkey work” and let the elected officials do the real voting.

    “I am 100 percent in favor of these modifications,” Nevard said. “I think that’s the way it should be. Council should always have the final authority.”

    The ordinance implementing the changes is scheduled to come up for final consideration at the March 24 council meeting.

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