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Boca Raton: Beach duplex plan endures setback after heated debate

After hearing more than four hours of competing testimony about a proposed duplex on the beach, the city’s Environmental Advisory Board spent little time reaching a decision.

“Environmentally the Coastal [Construction] Control Line is there for a reason, and it was put there for a good reason,” board Chairman Stephen Alley said just before the panel voted 4-0 to recommend that the City Council deny the project a zoning variance.

Boca Raton city staff had urged the board not to approve building the duplex at 2600 N. Ocean Blvd., east of the coastal line that runs along the west side of State Road A1A at the property. Plans call for the structure to be four stories, approximately 49 feet tall, with 14,270 square feet of habitable space.

“The proposed duplex would have substantial negative environmental impacts, including negative impacts on endangered sea turtles and destruction of native vegetation, dune ecosystem and critical habitat,” said Brandon Schaad, Boca Raton’s director of development services.

Those in the overflow crowd Jan. 10 at City Hall made their own recommendations.

“If you take [the dune] away, it will be so heartbreaking. Really it’s heartbreaking,” said Tricia Krefetz, calling the duplex a “monstrosity” and breaking into tears while at the podium.

Another speaker directed her comments toward the property owner.

“When you bought your property, you knew what the rules were. … You’re asking to change the rules,” said Lillian Vineberg, whose family developed the Ocean Club condominium tower at 2401 N. Ocean, across A1A.

“Hopefully the developer will see that the best, highest use of this land is to donate it [to the city] to reap a healthy tax deduction,” seasonal visitor Mike Lee said.

Robert Sweetapple, attorney for the developer, dismissed Schaad’s analysis as being based on “junk science” and brought a gaggle of experts to rebut it. Boca Raton has a clear choice, he said: Either approve the duplex plan or buy the parcel for its recently appraised value of $7.1 million.

“The CCCL was passed after this property was made a buildable site and after taxes had been paid year after year after year,” Sweetapple said. “We’re not taking your beach and your property. The city’s messing with us and trying to take ours.”

The environmental board’s review was the next-to-the-last step for 2600 N Ocean LLC, which has a contract to purchase the property from New Jersey-based Grand Bank NA. The City Council will consider the request in February.

Council members caused a popular uproar in late 2015 when they gave a zoning variance for a four-story beachfront home two parcels south, at 2500 N. Ocean Blvd. That project has not yet come before the EAB.

The city staff’s recommendation against 2600 N. Ocean was based in large part on a coastal engineering and environmental review by consultant Mike Jenkins of Applied Technology & Management Inc. Jenkins in turn relied heavily on the city’s marine conservationist, Kirt Rusenko.

The property for the duplex (between red lines and west of the yellow beach line) lies in one of the heaviest turtle nesting areas of Boca Raton. Renderings provided by the City of Boca Raton

Rusenko’s report on the property showed that from 2008 to 2017 green sea turtles made three nests, loggerheads two nests and leatherbacks one nest, all on the beach in front of the dune system. They made a collective 17 “false crawls,” coming up on the sand but not digging a nest, 12 of them in the foredune closest to the water.

“The glass surfaces of the proposed structure would certainly reflect light possibly enough to deter nesting turtles and disorient their hatchlings,” wrote Rusenko, who did not attend the advisory board meeting.

But Tom Tomasello, onetime general counsel for the state’s Department of Natural Resources and an expert witness for the developer, said the proposal fully complies with Florida law and rules regarding dunes, lighting and sea turtles.

“The idea is to minimize the impact, and we’ve minimized the impact to the dune system as much as we possibly can,” said Tomasello, who also represented Boca Raton when the city obtained state approval to trim sea grapes on A1A. “There is no criteria in any state rule or law that deals with reflection. It has never been an issue.”

John Fletemeyer, who supervised sea turtle conservation in Delray Beach for 31 years, presented a study that showed turtles nested less frequently behind undeveloped Atlantic Dunes Park on A1A than behind the condos north and south.

“I don’t have a reason for this, but it certainly is the case,” Fletemeyer said. “You would expect … that Atlantic Dunes Park, being least developed, would have the highest nesting densities. In fact, just the opposite is true.”

Each side of the duplex proposed by partners Richard Caster and Brian Grossberg would have a roof level with a pool, spa, fire pit and outdoor kitchen. Sweetwater said the “cutting edge” building would have special glass facing the ocean that would transmit only 10 percent of interior light, below the city’s request for 15 percent, and have only 8 percent reflectivity.

“And all the glass has been recessed. So this is the most turtle-friendly building that has ever been presented in this county,” Sweetapple said. “This building will actually reduce sky glow, which is the main concern with regard to nesting turtles.”

Before the vote, advisory board vice chairman Ben Kolstad said the panel would not offer advice on property rights.

“I respect property rights; I have property rights; I intend to enforce them as rigorously as I can on my own property. And I don’t fault the petitioner for doing the same,” Kolstad said. “I do think there’s a pressing public interest here that is being perhaps ignored by the petitioner.”

By Steve Plunkett

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