Voters to decide fate of Ocean Mall Building height, uses of 11 acres at issue
WEST PALM BEACH — Two ballot questions that could undo Riviera Beach's $280 million deal with builder Dan Catalfumo to revamp the Ocean Mall on Singer Island can go on the March 13 ballot, a judge ruled Monday.
Circuit Judge Glenn Kelley granted the Public Beach Coalition's request to put to voters whether building height on the city-owned beach should be kept to five stories and whether leases on the 11 acres should be limited to 50 years and allow only tourism and recreation uses.
Kelley rejected the coalition's attempt to let voters decide whether to repeal the city council's October vote that amended its charter by upping the public beach lease from 50 to 99 years.
"Finally, the residents of Riviera Beach won one," said an elated Dawn Pardo, the coalition's chairwoman. "This just goes to show you that every now and then that you can fight city hall and win."
City Attorney Pamala Ryan said Riviera Beach officials are "reviewing the order and considering our options."
The ruling has the greatest impact on Catalfumo, who for the past three years has been trying to strike a deal with the city to redevelop the 33-year-old Ocean Mall. That finally happened Dec. 18, when the council voted to lease Catalfumo its beach for 50 years in order to raze the aging mall and replace it with a 28-story Marriott condo/hotel and 60,000 square feet of shops and restaurants.
However, if voters approve the ballot questions, Catalfumo's project to make over the Ocean Mall is dead. Catalfumo cannot afford to build a five-story condo/hotel, and he also would lose the right to sell condos on the public beach.
Catalfumo Construction and Development officials failed to return phone calls Monday.
The Ocean Mall project also is critical to Catalfumo because he is developing 2700 N. Ocean Drive, two 27-story condo towers on the northern border of the city's beach. Controlling the public beach is likely to make Catalfumo's 2700 N. Ocean Drive project much more marketable.
Keeping the Ocean Mall project is so crucial to Catalfumo that the builder hired a local firm of private investigators to keep an eye on the coalition's petition drive. An affidavit from Richell Breatwell, a private investigator, said she used an alias to sign the petitions when they were left unattended.
Attorneys for Riviera Beach tried to use Breatwell's affidavit to convince the judge that the petitions were invalid. But Kelley did not buy the argument.
The legal battle between the city and the coalition began Dec. 21, when both sides sued each other. The coalition filed its suit after the council voted to reject nearly 3,000 signatures that the group had gathered to put the issues on the ballot.
Kelley sided with the coalition, which argued that state law prevailed over the city charter when it comes to getting the necessary signatures to place charter amendments on the ballot. The judge relied on a past state attorney general's opinion that said state law trumps municipal charters when it comes to making amendments.
As for repealing the council vote, he rejected the coalition's argument, saying an evidentiary hearing is required.