Courtesy of The Palm Beach Post
Published September 18, 2015
RIVIERA BEACH — After a decade-long delay, a giant resort
and spa project is back on the drawing board for Riviera Beach’s Singer
The Wellness Resort and Spa complex would be composed of two 20-story towers
along North Ocean Drive, less than a mile north of Blue Heron Boulevard. It
would generate millions in tax revenue and create thousands of temporary
jobs and hundreds of permanent jobs.
But the project, delayed by the economic downturn until its recent approval
by the city’s Planning and Zoning Board, also raises questions about the
balance coastal communities must strike between economic development,
guarding against beach erosion and limiting the risk of damage from
hurricanes. There also are questions about its size, which is larger than
when it got its original approval in 2004.
The Planning and Zoning Board met to discuss the project last month. At the
time, Tropical Storm Erika was on a track to strike Palm Beach County as a
Category 1 hurricane.
“As we enter the height of hurricane
season and now tracking Tropical Storm Erika, it is a
reminder of the real possibility of Florida being within its
path,” the Singer Island Civic Association wrote in a letter
of opposition to the zoning board. “No one can predict the
aftermath or impact a storm will have on Riviera Beach’s
Some in the area have painful memories of the damage wrought
by hurricanes Frances and Jeanne, which struck within three
weeks of each other in September 2004.
The storms ripped off chunks of the facade of the Tiara
condominium complex, which sits next to where the proposed
resort and spa would be built.
The Tiara was declared uninhabitable after the storms,
sparking a decade-long legal battle over insurance claims.
Tiara residents, who claimed the building was under-insured,
ultimately lost their legal battle to force the insurance
broker Marsh USA to pay $35 million in claims.
The Tiara was repaired and residents
returned — three years after they were forced to leave. Each
resident had paid $146,000 in special assessments to cover
hurricane damage and were hoping to recover about $100,000
of that amount.
Even with Tropical Storm Erika looming, the hurricane threat was not a
factor as the Planning and Zoning Board heard a presentation on the resort
and spa project.
South Florida developer Jim Brown, whose work includes St. Lucie West in
Port St. Lucie, showed a video detailing how he worked to overcome
objections to the Wellness project.
In the video, Julie Botel, chairwoman of a group of Tiara condo owners, said
she and others were concerned about construction noise. Tiarra residents had
other worries, too.
“We were also naturally concerned about the ocean view from our northern
units in the Tiara,” Botel said.
Brown altered the plan so the towers don’t block the view of Tiara
residents. Other changes were made to make the project more attractive and
modern, he told Planning and Zoning Board members.
Those changes eased the concerns of Tiara owners, but the Singer Island
Civic Association still has problems with the project.
One of those problems is the size of the towers. Original plans called for a
pair of connected towers, one nine stories tall and the other rising 20
Now, plans call for a pair of unconnected, 20-story towers with 359 rooms
and suites and 30,000 square feet of spa and wellness facilities.
“If the recent history predicts the future, we can all look around at the
oceanfront buildings on Singer Island,” Marie Davis, vice president of the
Singer Island Civic Association, told Planning and Zoning Board members.
“They are massive and in your face, built too close to the roadway. We want
development on Singer Island, pleasing to the residents, aesthetically
pleasing, not massive, not this proposal.”
Drew Martin, conservation chair of the Loxahatchee Group of the Sierra Club,
has environmental concerns with the project.
“Sea level rise may impact any new buildings,” said Martin, noting that his
group is opposed to additional coastal development on Singer Island. “This
risk of damage could lead to higher insurance rates for all of us.”
Robert Gonstead, a member of the Singer Island Civic Association and
president of Protect Our Beaches, said the project is too close to the
Earlier this year, Riviera Beach adopted the state’s coastal construction
line, which was established in 1997. That 1997 line is further west than the
previous line, which was established in 1979.
But because plans for the resort and spa had been approved before the city
adopted the state’s 1997 line, the developer is being allowed to build east
of the 1979 line, which is closer to the ocean.
Gonstead said that’s a problem.
“I don’t think it’s fair to other developers,” he said.
Gonstead said he’s also worried that the state and federal governments,
which help pay for beach re-nourishment, could decide Riviera Beach isn’t
serious about protecting its beaches.
“If you start to let people build close to the beach, you could threaten
your funding source,” he said. “The state could say, ‘Hey, why haven’t you
enforced the 1997 line?’”
Jeff Gagnon, Riviera Beach’s planning and zoning administrator, recommended
that board members reject the resort and spa plan.
The original plan was approved with a set of variances, and Gagnon argued
that, because the new plan is significantly different, those variances
should no longer apply.
Gagnon made no argument about the project itself.
Several people connected to the project praised it to board members.
Riviera Beach could see its annual property tax collection for the property
go from $53,000 to $3.17 million, said Don Delaney, president of Strategic
Development Initiatives, a community redevelopment firm that studied the
economic impact of the project.
The city would also collect $3.2 million in impact and various other fees as
the resort and spa is being built, Delaney said.
Over a 10-year period, the city would collect $38 million in fees and
property taxes from the project, he said.
“I will tell you, as a public economist, that’s a large enough number to
help relieve some of the pressure that local elected officials have in
trying to provide the services for the community without having to raise the
tax rate,” Delaney said. “These are significant numbers.”
Also significant, Delaney said, are the numbers of jobs that will be created
— more than 3,000 during construction and 659 permanent jobs once the resort
and spa is built. Those 659 jobs would have an economic impact of $43
million, Delaney said.
Planning and Zoning Board members voted 6-1 to approve the plan, which could
be taken up by the Riviera Beach City Council in October.
“I want to see this development start as soon as we can get the City Council
to approve of it,” Planning and Zoning Board Member Julius Whigham said.
“The reason for that: We will be getting good tax dollars. The second
reason: People will have jobs in two and a half months after it’s built, and
that’s a big thing right there. And plus, this project, once it’s completed,
will help put us on the map as what we are and for the people that come to
our beaches, our marina and different things around our city and enjoy