Public comment squashed, Santamaria walks out in Palm Beach County Commission golf course debate

SportsPoliticsElectionsPalm Beach County Commission

Palm Beach County Commissioner Jess Santamaria walked out in frustration and a crowd of retirees was denied the chance to speak as tensions rose at Thursday’s commission meeting.

The commission in a 4-3 vote approved controversial development plans to build more than 600 homes along with shops and an assisted living facility on a closed golf course west of West Palm Beach.

Century Village residents opposed to the building plans for more than a year had been trying to stop the spread of development onto the neighboring golf course.

Yet on Thursday, the Century Village residents – who filled the County Commission chambers and spilled out into at least two overflow seating areas on two different floors – weren’t allowed to speak at the public meeting.

“I was completely fed up with the whole thing,” said Santamaria, who left after the first of two votes needed to approve development plans. “By shutting people up shows something is wrong.”

Palm Beach County Mayor Steven Abrams, who heads the commission and runs the commission meetings, decided not to allow public comment Thursday.

That’s because the long-delayed development proposal had already been through four public meetings and hours of pro and con debate. A meeting in January that included hours of public comment left the shorthanded county commission deadlocked, which resulted in the development proposal getting delayed until Thursday when all seven commissioners were in attendance.

Santamaria and Commissioner Paulette Burdick pushed for allowing more public comment on Thursday, but a majority of the commission wasn’t willing to join them.

“We have heard every opinion possible,” Abrams said. “At some point it becomes a filibuster.”

Not allowing the public to speak sent the wrong message, said Santamaria, who said the public discussion was “manipulatively derailed.”

“We have tried and are still trying to regain public trust,” Santamaria said, referring to corruption scandals that plagued the county commission between 2006 and 2010. “To shut them down is not a way of regaining public trust.”

Opponents to the development plans went into Thursday’s commission meeting expecting to end up having to fight the project in court.

“No matter what we say to these commissioners [they] will vote to approve the application instead of thinking about the senior residents of Century Village,” resident Honey Sager said before the meeting.

Fairways LLC, a development group headed by Andrew Waldman, owns the property. The development backers contend that a golf course is no longer economically feasible there and the land is a prime spot for redevelopment that will lift neighboring property values.

Development opponents have argued that building on the closed golf course would bring too much traffic, noise and a potential increase in crime along with the influx of people.

They also object to overturning a “perpetuity” requirement in a nearly 40-year-old agreement that calls for the property to remain a golf course.

County commissioners Abrams, Shelley Vana, Priscilla Taylor and Mary Lou Berger voted for allowing development on the golf course property. Commissioners Santamaria, Burdick and Hal Valeche voted against allowing the development.

Santamaria said the County Commission should be supporting the thousands of residents of Century Village, not approving a development that risks a costly court fight “just to benefit a developer.”

“Slowly but surely we are diluting all the things we came here for,” Santamaria said. “It’s a nonstop invasion.  … It’s a sad state of affairs.”

Abrams countered that the development plan was “a practical solution” to what would otherwise lead to the continued “degradation of the property.”

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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