By Tim O’Meilia
The Palm Beach Oceanfront Inn’s long-running battle with the town of South Palm Beach moved to the courthouse March 29, when the inn’s owners filed suit over the Town Council’s denial in 2009 of their plans to replace the two-story motel with a 10-story hotel-condominium.
The filing came three days before the state ethics commission cleared five town officials — including two council members — of conflicts of interest in dealing with the inn.
The lawsuit has already run into a stumbling block. The inn’s attorney, Eric Christu of Shutts & Bowen, withdrew his firm from the suit since it also represents Pat Festino, one of the town officials named in the suit, in an unrelated case.
The inn is seeking a new attorney. In addition, Town Attorney Brad Biggs said the town will file a request to move the suit from Palm Beach County Circuit Court to federal court, since two counts allege civil rights violations.
In the suit, the inn owners claim the town officials violated their federal civil rights, conspired against them, refused to release public records, denied use of their waterfront rights, illegally appointed planning board members and enacted charter amendments in violation of state law, among other things.
The suit names the town, Mayor Donald Clayman, council members Stella Jordan, Susan Lillybeck, Joseph Flagello, former Councilman Charles McCrosson, planning board members Festino, Dee Robinson, chairman Mike Nevard and Town Manager Rex Taylor.
Neither inn co-owner Pjeter Paloka nor town officials would comment on the suit.
Council members Jordan and Lillybeck and planning board members Festino, Robinson and Nevard were pleased the ethics commission cleared them of allegations made more than a year ago by Paloka.
Investigators found no probable cause that council members Jordan and Lillybeck had conflicts of interest in voting to put charter amendments affecting the motel on the ballot or in being members of SPB Preservation, Inc. — which they denied. They also gained no financial benefit in voting against redevelopment of the inn property, investigators found.
“For myself and the other four people involved, I’m just glad to see the whole matter put to rest,” Lillybeck said. “It’s behind us now and it’s time to move on.”
Complaints against planning board members Nevard, Robinson and Festino also were dismissed. The complaints included voting conflicts and benefiting from their votes against the motel’s plans.
“I am very happy that truth and justice prevailed after 14 months of being under a cloud with my integrity questioned,” said Nevard, who chairs the town’s planning board.
Paloka filed the complaints beginning in January 2010, after his plans to build a hotel-condominium on the grounds of the only commercial property in town were denied for the second time in two years. In 2007, a 14-story project was rejected and, in 2009, a scaled-back 10-story, 99-unit request was denied.
Replacing the 50-year-old, two-story motel has been the subject of heated debate since plans were first made public in 2006. In March, town voters approved two charter amendments by a wide margin that ban buildings taller than six stories. The vote, in effect, takes the issue out of the hands of the Town Council.
In other town business at the April 26 meeting, the council:
• Reappointed Nevard, Robinson and Festino to the planning board for three-year terms.
• Former Councilman Brian Merbler was appointed to the year remaining on the Architectural Review Board term of Joan McManus, who died.
• Approved the installation of AT&T wireless antennas on the Horizons West condominium next to the Town Hall. The antennas will be located at the rear of the condo and affixed to the building or placed behind a wall. The antennas will improve AT&T 911 emergency service as well as extend cell service a half-mile north to the town of Palm Beach and a half-mile south into Manalapan.
• Accepted the 2010 annual audit prepared by Marcum LLP, which had no negative findings. The town has $4 million in assets and a fund balance of $2 million. Tax revenue, mostly from property tax, dropped $121,000. The town dipped into reserves for $217,000 last year to balance the budget. Ú