Mall plans called into question again

By Sarah Stover
Staff writer
Posted: 2006 Nov 24 - 01:10

SINGER ISLAND - The people have spoken.

Singer Island resident Dawn Pardo and other residents were successful in collecting more than the required amount of signatures to take a decision about the lease on the Ocean Mall to the people.

"This is an exciting time. The people have spoken and beat all odds. They fought to take something to referendum and they won," said Bill Contole, president of Citizens for Responsible Growth, an organization of volunteers whose mission is to protect Riviera Beach from over development.

Riviera Beach City Council members voted 4-1 in favor of granting Catalfumo Construction and Development, a Palm Beach Gardens-based developer, its requested 99-year lease on the Ocean Mall property on Sept. 20.

Councilman Jim Jackson, who represents Singer Island, voted against it.

The lease agreement is for 50 years with an automatic renewal for 49 years. Representatives from Catalfumo argued they needed the 99-year lease to obtain financing.

Residents took action.

Ms. Pardo filed for a petition to take the council's decision to a referendum on Oct. 6. She had 30 days from the filing date to gather signatures from 15 percent of the city's 19, 614 registered voters. With help from other residents who formed the Public Beach Coalition, a grass-roots organization whose purpose was to get the lease on the March 2007 ballot, she gathered more signatures than she needed.

"We were required to obtain a total of 2,943 signatures. We exceeded our goal and obtained more than 4,000 signatures," said Ms. Pardo.

"The average person in Riviera Beach is very concerned about the beach. They want to keep it a public property," said Mr. Contole.

Citizens also got more than the required signatures on two other petitions regarding the Ocean Mall.

One would change language in the city's charter to restrict the use of public land to tourism and recreational use only and limit leases to a maximum of 50 years. The other would put in place a five-story height limitation on the Ocean Mall parcel.

If passed, that would drastically change Catalfumo's plans for a 28-story mixed-use hotel, condo tower on the 11-acre property.

"We only needed 10 percent of (registered voters' signatures) for these two since they regard amending the charter. We needed 2,000 signatures and we had over 3,200," said Mr. Contole.

Mr. Jackson helped collect signatures.

"The whole city of Riviera Beach is in an uproar over what the developers are trying to do. If we had another three weeks, we could have gotten another 4,000 signatures. That's how disgruntled the people are," said Mr. Jackson.

He was only the council member to sign all three petitions.

"I don't know why (the others) didn't sign. It's a mystery to me," said Mr. Jackson.

Although they were successful, it was not exactly easy.

While they were collecting signatures at the Walgreens on Congress Avenue and Blue Heron Boulevard, two men, private investigators for Allegations, Inc., of Miramar, began filming them.

"They told us they were doing surveillance. We left immediately," said Mr. Contole.

He looked up the company. According to a document from the state department division of corporations, posted on Citizens for Responsible Growth's Web site, www.rg4rb.org, Allegations was involuntarily dissolved in 1989.

Mr. Catalfumo admitted in another publication that he hired the investigators. [ED.] Click to see the offenders.

"We always have to check on what's going on, especially when we get a 'bad taste,'" said Josie Hernandez, director of communications for Catalfumo in confirming that the company hired the firm.

The "bad taste" refers to hearing that people were misinformed. The developer wanted to make sure that people were being told the truth.

"We saw (on the investigator's films) that it wasn't. (The people who obtained signatures) were sticking with what they believe is the truth," said Ms. Hernandez.

They did not mean to interrupt people signing the petitions.

"We told investigators not to hinder what they were doing," said Ms. Hernandez.

Mr. Contole and Ms. Pardo returned to the location the next day, as did the investigators, but this time they did not leave, nor did the people coming to sign the petitions.

"The people were not stopped by the bullying," said Mr. Contole.

"(Mr. Catalfumo) was clearly using them as a form of intimidation. His actions have proven to the residents that he has no respect for them or for the charter of our city. Mr. Catalfumo's right-hand man, Joey Eichner, told us that he was going to depose every person that signed the petitions.

"If he and Mr. Catalfumo were so sure their project was so good for the city's residents, they would not be making threats. They would let people participate in the process that our charter lays out for us," said Ms. Pardo.

"We were not intimidating anybody and we weren't getting in anybody's face," Ms. Hernandez said.

Mr. Catalfumo wanted to have evidence in case lawsuits transpire in the future, she said.

Mr. Contole and Ms. Pardo had just one question: where to take the signatures now that they had them?

To Riviera Beach city clerk Carrie Ward, they were told. Ms. Pardo submitted them on Nov. 3. In return, Ms. Ward gave her a letter stating they had been submitted, so the signatures could be taken to the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections office to be verified. As of press time the signatures were still being verified, said a supervisor of elections representative.