By Rich Pollack
Recognizing that just saying “No” won’t stop construction of the controversial Milani Park, Highland Beach commissioners are now planning to hire a consultant to try to convince Palm Beach County leaders that other alternatives exist.
In what appears to be an about-face from more traditional land-use arguments where residents ask for open space rather than development, town leaders say they would rather see the 5.6 vacant acres developed.
For more than 36 years, since the Milani family sold the property to the county for $4 million with the caveat that it be used as a beachfront park, town residents have been opposed to its development as a park and have been successful in delaying construction.
With county leaders committing this summer to developing as a public park the property straddling State Road A1A at the south end of town, vocal opposition among residents concerned about safety and trespassing is resurfacing.
Town commissioners say they will leave the emotional arguments to residents and instead take a more rational approach.
“We think there is a win-win solution,” said Town Manager Marshall Labadie. “There are alternatives where the county could get a better return on its investment and serve more families dealing with more pressing issues.”
The alternative town commissioners discussed the most during a meeting last month was having the county sell the property for development.
“That’s very expensive land,” Mayor Natasha Moore said. “They could sell that property and buy something less expensive that could impact many more people.”
Persuading county leaders to do that, however, could be a challenge.
Providing beach access is one of the main reasons the county wants to go ahead with development of a park in that space, since the county’s comprehensive plan requires a specific ratio of beach access countywide to population, Palm Beach County Parks and Recreation Director Jennifer Cirillo said.
As the population grows, additional beach access is needed, she said.
Under a conceptual design, the park would include parking for about 40 cars on the west side of A1A and would have a boardwalk with access to the beach on the east side of the road.
Town commissioners believe that the small amount of beach at the Milani Park site is insignificant considering the extensive amount of public beach north and south of town.
Although County Commissioner Marci Woodward, whose district includes the property, has said she is a strong supporter of building the park, Highland Beach commissioners are hoping to convince commissioners representing other districts that money from a sale of the property would have greater impact, possibly in their areas.
A consultant, commissioners say, could play a key role in getting that message — and other alternatives — across.
“We need a specialist who can come up with other arguments and facts so that we can say, ‘Look, there’s this, this and this.’ Never mind that people don’t want it,” said town Commissioner Evalyn David.
If the county were to forgo creating the park and sell the property for development, the buyer would have several hurdles to overcome.
Under the settlement agreement reached in 2010, the county would be required to offer the Milani family the opportunity to match any offer.
In addition, any development would have to be in accordance with town codes and development of the east side of the property could be hampered since it is believed to have archeological significance as a Native American burial ground.
During discussions of what strategic approach might work best, it was suggested that the town start petitions to show opposition to the park or charter buses to take residents to a County Commission meeting to voice their concerns.
However, Labadie suggested to commissioners that it is best if residents take the lead on those or similar options.
“Any success in limiting this park requires a self-driven campaign by residents,” he said.
Residents will have a chance to voice their concerns on Feb. 1 when county representatives host a public forum focused on the park.
Labadie believes they will hear a lot of opposition to the proposal.
“I have not met a single person in town who is in favor of this project,” he said.