The Royal Palm Beach Council faced a packed meeting hall on Thursday, Dec. 19, with most of the attendees on hand to oppose the village purchasing a vacant home at 180 Sandpiper Avenue as part of a plan to enhance access to Royal Palm Beach Commons Park.
The item was originally listed as number 13 on the agenda, but given the crowd, Mayor Fred Pinto opted to move it up to the start of the meeting.
The request was for authorization to purchase 180 Sandpiper Avenue at a cost of $320,000, which was above the appraised value of $253,000. The appraisal came in lower than other surrounding property sales due to the home’s poor condition. However, village staff proposed to tear down the structure.
The purchase was to be the first step in a long-range project to enhance pedestrian and bicycle access into nearby Commons Park. Having control of the property would connect the nearby FPL easement, through a canal, to an area that already has a walking path into the park.
After nearly an hour of fielding public and staff comments, the council unanimously rejected the proposed purchase.
Village Manager Ray Liggins presented a detailed list of items related to the purchase of the property, including the connection to the village’s mission and long-term strategic plans.
“The property at 180 Sandpiper was identified and presented as the highest priority for improving pedestrian, bicycle and boat access… Our mission states we will provide services and facilities to create an active and connected hometown family community,” Liggins said. “Our comprehensive plan states we will develop a safe bicycle and pedestrian transportation system accessible to all major public and private facilities.”
Liggins explained that the purchase of the property would provide a half-acre piece of land owned by the public that would allow boat access to the area. The next phase would be to apply for council approval and grant funding to build a bike path and bridge to Commons Park, making access to the park significantly shorter for thousands of residents.
The intent of the project, according to Liggins, was to create a more connected community. Future approval of other phases of the project would provide area residents better access to the shops on Southern Blvd., and also include the purchase of property in the Counterpoint Estates area for an eventual bridge. Counterpoint residents would receive a four-mile reduction in their route to Commons Park and an off-street route to Seminole Palms Park.
Despite the list of other benefits Liggins presented, such as reducing parking issues in the area, the community showed up in strong opposition to the purchase and plans for a bridge.
The first to speak out in opposition was Mike Gershberg, who lives not far from the property.
“For the past three years, I’ve been the captain of the neighborhood watch throughout the whole Willows,” Gershberg said. “As a boat owner, I know the canal system very well. There’s no room to park a boat.”
He said that the traffic created by the proposal would be detrimental to the neighborhood.
Randy Shank lives directly across from the property and voiced his worries, specifically about the bridge and also Bobbie Jo Lauder Park, a small recreation area along Sandpiper Avenue and Grouse Lane.
“I moved out here from West Palm Beach to be in a safe neighborhood,” Shank said. “I don’t think Bobbie Jo Lauder Park is well lit. I don’t think there is a lot of security. I think the bridge is going to bring unwanted traffic. I’ve called the cops several times, and I’ve had my life threatened.”
Liggins noted future plans to light the pathway along the FPL easement. He stressed that this request was only about buying the land, not building the bridge.
Randall Ives, the neighborhood watch captain for Counterpoint Estates, did not believe that the plan would help his neighborhood.
“My concerns are about the FPL easement. I don’t see any access to that being favorable,” Ives said. “Putting a bridge to that easement does not help the Counterpoint residents whatsoever.”
Pinto and Liggins responded that there would be many opportunities for the public to provide their input throughout each step of the project.
“This shows a commitment of the village to improving transit, especially off-road pedestrian transit,” Liggins said. “We have to focus on the benefits of expanding our non-motorized system. This is the biggest reason for supporting this project.”
Gisele Bracciale was unconvinced.
“My husband and I bought our house in the Willows two years ago, and during our search, the option to purchase in Counterpoint came up on more than one occasion. We did our due diligence,” Bracciale said. “You can imagine my frustration that the neighborhood I selected and invested in has now made plans to connect to the neighborhood I explicitly chose not to live in.”
The bridge aside, another major concern of residents was the price tag, which was well above the appraised value.
“My focus is on the financial side. I’m a commercial loan officer. There is no way they could sell the property in its current state. There is no way they could get a loan,” Beau Marburger said. “You are rewarding bad behavior. You’re overpaying for it. It is poor financial stewardship.”
Liggins explained that it was better to purchase the property from a willing seller than to condemn the property, and that the owner was in the process of making needed improvements. He also argued it would be a win for both the village and its residents. It was the top choice property for the project.
Another voiced concern was what would happen if the land was purchased, but the remainder of the project, including the bridge, did not receive approval. After Liggins responded they would create boat parking, Gershberg returned to the podium.
“Wouldn’t it be a brilliant idea if we voted on the idea before we purchased the property?” he asked. “I was the president of the Royal Palm Bassmasters here for 12 years. This is not going to be a marina. There is not enough room for two boats to go down the canal.”
Jessica O’Keefe stood as the lone supporter from the community. She noted the opposition to the previous purchase of 109 Heron Parkway to create an entrance to Commons Park. “I love that my children have a safe pathway to get there. Now, it’s beautiful,” she said.
A motion to deny the request came from Councilman Richard Valuntas, with a second from Councilwoman Selena Samios. The council voted unanimously 5-0 to deny the request, followed by applause.
“Too many concerns have been raised,” Pinto said. “We do listen to feedback and input from our citizens.”