Plans for two 50-foot-tall buildings on Boca Raton’s beachfront have ignited a debate about the future of one of South Florida’s last undeveloped stretches of oceanfront land.
The two buildings — one a duplex and the other a large home — would be built on privately owned land on the east side of State Road A1A, an area now occupied by golden sand dunes and sea grapes.
Boca Raton has long prided itself on having a long stretch of undeveloped beach unencumbered by the beachfront high-rises seen across Florida. People come from all over to bike and walk there. Some even park by the road to snap pictures of the ocean.
The prospect of changing that in any way has drawn a public outcry.
Boca Raton Councilwoman Andrea Levine O’Rourke says hardly a day goes by without people urging her to keep the beachfront pristine.
“I did run for office for reasons and the biggest one is to protect endangered land,” said O’Rourke, elected to public office last year.
Here’s a look at the plans and what’s expected to happen next.
Is it unusual to build on the beach in Boca Raton?
Yes, the majority of Boca’s beachfront, three of the five miles, is publicly owned. Only a handful of buildings, mostly condos built before state laws made it harder to build on coastal land, dot the land east of State Road A1A and north of Palmetto Park Road.
Where would these new buildings be built?
One proposal calls for a four-story duplex called the Boca Beach House, at 2600 N. Ocean Blvd., about half a mile north of Gumbo Limbo, Boca’s nature center.
It would rise 50 feet from beach sands and have more than 14,000 square feet of indoor space, according to city records. A city environmental advisory board was going to review the proposal this month, but that has been postponed until next month at the earliest.
A plan for another building, at 2500 N. Ocean Blvd., would rise 50 feet. It would have 7,644 square feet, excluding garage space and 2,250 square feet in balcony space, according to plans on file with the city.
Didn’t the city plan to buy up the privately owned parcels of beach to stop these proposals from happening?
The city’s administration in 2015 sent a letter to the Greater Boca Raton Beach & Park District, asking the board to investigate how much it would cost to buy up privately owned beach lots.
When talks with the property owners fell through, the district’s leadership investigated how much it might cost to get them through eminent domain, a process that allows government to acquire private land for public use. But the results showed it would’ve been too expensive, said Art Koski, executive director of the beach and park district.
Together, the appraisals for 2500 and 2600 N. Ocean Blvd. came in at $13.2 million.
“We did not have the money in our budget,” Koski said. “On who would pay, the city said it wasn’t going to be them.”
What happens next?
There were four Boca Raton City Council members who voted “yes” to allow the building to go wider than city rules allow on the 2500 property in December 2015, and three of them have since left office. Mayor Scott Singer is the lone “yes” vote who remains on the council. But, for construction to start, the plan faces more hurdles that must win council approval and Singer says he is concerned about the project’s environmental issues.
The lone “nay” vote for the 2500 property rule change, Councilman Jeremy Rodgers, has since been joined by two councilwomen who campaigned against coastal construction.
The City Council’s approval for the 2500 development was set to expire in December 2017 if it was not acted on. But an approved extension of the plan through 2019 leaves the door open for it to proceed.
The plan for the 2600 property also needs to be approved by the Boca Raton City Council, and its new members are likely to oppose it.
That could prove a contest between private property rights and the public interest in protecting sensitive coastal lands.
Private property owners have a right to develop the property within existing rules. It’s up in the air how much the city would allow this company that owns the property to adjust the rules to meet its vision of the building.
Why has there been such an outcry?
Katie Barr, who started the Facebook page, “Boca Beach News,” said the crowd was incredulous at the meetings where the city planning board and the City Council pushed through the lot-width variance requested for 2500 N. Ocean Blvd. She said she doesn’t want to see any big buildings, because of the land’s fragility.
Everyone else has developed on the west side of State Road A1A, she said.
“That stretch belongs to everyone in Boca Raton — this is our calling card,” she said. “You can drive down that stretch and feel like it’s all worth it.”
Joe Panella, who has lived in Boca for 48 years, now working in communications software, said allowing these buildings would be a dramatic reversal of Boca’s effort to keep the beaches building-free. He said he can’t understand why buildings should be allowed where turtles come to nest.
“It’s just a bad idea to build on the beach,” he said.
Who owns these properties?
That’s somewhat of a mystery despite what public records show.
The 2500 property is owned by a company called Natural Lands LLC, according to the Palm Beach County property appraiser. Gavriel Naim, one of the owners of the company listed as the landowner, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that his company no longer owns the property and referred questions to a law office in Chicago and another in Fort Lauderdale listed on the deed. Neither of those firms responded to an inquiry.
Azure Development, which is developing the property for 2600 N. Ocean Blvd., couldn’t be reached for comment. A representative for the owner of the 2600 property, Grand Bank National Association, based in New Jersey, could not be reached either.
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