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Riviera weighs 99-year lease of public beach
 Singer Island residents who say voter approval is needed plan to challenge a council vote expected Wednesday.

By WILLIAM COOPER, JR.
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 18, 2006
 

RIVIERA  BEACH  --  Builder Dan Catalfumo has enough city council votes to lease the public beach for 99 years in his $280 million bid to make over the Ocean Mall.  But he may not have enough sway over Singer Island Residents who are poised to challenge the council's vote in court and believe the decision should be taken out of the hands of the council and put to Riviera Beach voters.

With that as a backdrop, the council will vote Wednesday night on whether to extend the lease from 50 to 99 years by amending the city charter, a key decision in advancing the city's $2.4 billion waterfront development.

Councilman Jim Jackson, who represents Singer Island, said residents don't support the project and plan either to sue the city for failing to take the charter amendment to the voters or push to get enough signatures to place the length of the lease on the March 2007 ballot.  "No matter what the council does, there is going to be a backlash," said Jackson, who will vote against giving Catalfumo the 99-year lease.  "Singer Island is opposed to this project, and nobody is listening."

On Aug. 23, the council voted 4-1 to give Ocean Mall Redevelopment, the group led by Catalfumo that's redeveloping the mall, preliminary approval to build a 28-story Marriott hotel/condo and 60,000 square feet of shops and restaurants.

Joey Eichner, a Catalfumo spokesman and senior vice president, said getting the 99-lease is key to getting the project financed.  He said 99 years has become the industry standard for financing such projects. 

Under the agreement with Riviera Beach, Catalfumo will lease the city's 11-acre beach for 50 years with an automatic 49-year renewal, according to plans submitted to the Community Redevelopment Agency and the city.  "We're talking about a $280 million investment," Eichner said.  "With that kind of money you need to get a return on your investment, and it just takes more than 50 years to get that kind of return."

Eichner said the company is willing to work with Singer Island residents.  He believes the project has its share of supporters on the island.  "I think the majority of residents on Singer Island would like to see the redevelopment occur and do not have an issue with the project as proposed," he said.

City Manager Bill Wilkins said legal opinions from former CRA attorney Elizabeth McBride and City Attorney Pamela Ryan support the council's authority to amend the charter without going to the voters.  The council, which also sits as the CRA board, can change the charter by ordinance, which requires votes at two council meetings, he said.  "Our legal opinion has been that there are limited issues that are required by state law to go to the voters," Wilkins said.  "This is not one of them."

Attorney and Singer Island resident Bill Contole contends that the city's legal position is wrong.  There is case law that shows such charter changes must go before voters, he said.  The council is ignoring the will of the people, and that decision could prove costly in the future, according to Contole.

"It's the people who get to decide, not the developers," said Contole, whose organization, Citizens for Responsible Growth for Riviera Beach, has sued the city over approvals given to developers.  "They're going to end up in a situation where they (the council) may end op paying for their mistakes."

Controversy always has followed the city's effort to lease its public beach.  The original 50-year lease with the Brock family in 1972 caused problems because the city failed to enforce annual cost-of-living increases on the $20,000 yearly lease payment. 

Last month, Catalfumo bought out Brock's remaining 16 years on the lease for $9.5 million. Only a few tenants remain, and the structure built in the 1970's is in desperate need of renovation.

In addition to the lease, Singer Island residents oppose the height of the hotel.  They argue that it's out of character with Key West village concept residents supported when the CRA master plan was approved, Contole said.

Still, the city, CRA and Catalfumo are forging ahead.  The goal is to bring a final deal on the Ocean Mall project to the council for a vote Oct.4.  California consultant Bernard Kinsey, who was hired in May, has been the city's and CRA's lead negotiator on the mall project.  Kinsey believes residents will support the project once they see the benefits it will produce for the city.

Initial negotiations have produced the opportunity for the city to buy back the portion of the lease that covers the 60,000 square feet of shops and restaurants, he said.  After 30 years, the city can regain control over that part of the beach.

Kinsey also has reached an agreement under which the city will get a share of Marriott's profits from the hotel/condo units.