Trouble in paradise

Part of Boca Del Mar looks like a jungle. In fact, it’s more like a battleground.

The fight is over the former Mizner Trail Golf Course, on about 130 of Boca Del Mar’s 2,000 acres, just west of the city limits. The course was sold a decade ago, during the real estate boom, and the new owners closed it. Compson Development wants to build 288 homes, claiming that running a golf course is no longer financially feasible. Most of those in Boca Del Mar who own homes facing the vacant land oppose development, saying they made purchases assuming that the property would remain open.     

On Thursday, for the third time in eight years, the attempt to rezone the property goes before the Palm Beach County Commission. The issue had been scheduled for January, but was pulled. At the time, the staff report recommended denial, saying Compson had met few of the standards required for approval. Since then, Compson has revised the plan and met with county staffers, and the recommendation now is for approval of the 288 homes.The argument for the project is that the property has become an eyesore, and development will beautify the area and raise the neighbors’ property values. Because a golf course won’t work, development is the only option.

The argument against the project is that the golf course was intended 43 years ago—when Boca Del Mar was platted—as a buffer between homes, so the property should continue to serve that purpose. Opponents also suspect that Compson intended to close the course and build, but got caught by buying at the top of the market and deliberately failed to maintain the property.

Emotions are high on both sides. Compson has accused the opponents of stalling. The neighbors, after failing to persuade the Boca Raton Beach Taxing District to buy the property for a park, offered to buy the land. Their offer, though, was for just $1 million, which Compson called “insulting,” adding that the property never was for sale. Compson also doesn’t believe that enough residents would vote to join the sale.

Attorney Andre Parke, who represents homeowners opposed to the project, says his clients are “disappointed and bewildered” by the new recommendation. It is worth noting that former County Commissioner Burt Aaronson is now working with Compson. Mr. Parke also said in an email that Compson’s changes—more landscaping, wider buffers, a different mix of homes, to make the project less intrusive—were never discussed in public and that the neighbors never were notified “so they could attend.”

This is an issue that will come up more often in older golf course communities as residents' age and tastes change, especially with land again rising in value. In South Florida, open space doesn’t necessarily mean open forever.

Crash test dummies                                          

Seen Saturday in Boca Raton: A twenty-something man on Military Trail near Palmetto Park Road. He was riding a motor scooter. He wore no helmet, and he was texting. In the center lane.

Blame the Florida Legislature and former Gov. Jeb Bush for allowing bikers in Florida to ride without helmets. That decision supposedly was about “freedom.” Also blame the Florida Legislature for banning texting while driving, but making it just a secondary offense. Police can issue a ticket only if a driver is texting and committing another violation. To some legislators, that decision also was about the “freedom” people deserve in their own cars.

But what about the “freedom” of drivers in Florida from higher insurance rates? Deaths and serious injuries from motorcycle crashes have increased since the state passed the helmet law. So have accidents caused by distracted driving, and numerous studies have shown that texting is a distraction on the level of alcohol. More injuries and more accidents mean higher rates. We’re all paying to give that guy on the scooter his “freedom.”

Hokey Pokey                                             

Craig Ehrnst lost to incumbent Michael Mullaugh by about 2,200 votes in the Boca Raton Seat B election, so he probably can’t blame the defeat on one remark that he mistakenly thought would be humorous. Still, at a forum two weeks before the election, Ehrnst referred to the annual downtown Christmas parade as “hokey.” It seemed to be an attempt to say that Boca, despite its growth, retains some small-town feel. But the joke bombed. Don’t mess with the Christmas parade, and don’t make people think they live in “Bokey” Raton.

Fond Farewell                                        

On Wednesday, the Spirit of Giving Network will host a reception for outgoing Boca Raton Mayor Susan Whelchel. Apologies for the pun, but the spirit of the event is perfect.

Whelchel is leaving after spending six years as mayor. Previously, she spent 15 years on the city council. The only other current public official to be so identified with Boca Raton is Steven Abrams, who preceded Whelchel as mayor, spent nearly two decades on the council and now is a Palm Beach County commissioner representing Boca Raton.

Given Whelchel’s long service, critics can find any number of votes on which to disagree, such as development projects and the purchase of the Wildflower property. No one, though, can disagree with the importance Whelchel personally has placed on community involvement. She has been part of, or supported, numerous civic and charitable organizations. As a city official, she has embodied the idea of giving back. I’m reminded of what Tom Lynch, the former mayor of Delray Beach and also an ex-school board chairman, said when affluent Delray residents complained that their taxes were going to the less fortunate. He called it “the American Way,” part of the social contract.

Many on the host committee for Wednesday’s Sprit of Giving Network are associated with Boca Raton’s leading institutions, one of which is the network itself. Such spirit embodies the best of Boca.

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About the Author

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.