This Is our Village

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Cerabino: Century Villagers fight for seats at golf course hearing

                                              Lannis Waters/Palm Beach Post
Seniors pack the County Commission chambers Thursday.


Chris Vallo stood on the 12th floor of the Palm Beach County Governmental Center on Thursday morning doing his best to manage the stream of retirees spilling out of the elevator from the lower floors.
"The whole building is overflowed," the county employee announced.
Six floors below, the county commission chambers, a large hearing room built to handle big spectator events, had long since been filled to capacity.
And it was only 8:30 a.m., still an hour before a contentious zoning dispute over a redevelopment project affecting Century Village, was set to be heard before county commissioners.
"We're going to have to shut it down soon," Assistant County Administrator Brad Merriman said, as he stood in the building's ground-floor lobby, looking outside at the long line of retirees waiting to pass through the downtown West Palm Beach building's metal-detector screening area.
Merriman was running out of places to stash Century Villagers.
As county workers scurried around searching for TV sets and folding chairs, conference rooms on the seventh and 12th floors turned into virtual commission chambers.
The two flat-screen TVs in the lobby were put on full volume, which still wasn't loud enough for some, as a group of retirees clustered in front of the property appraiser's office to watch.
'Stand up and holler' option
County officials figured that the percolating issue over turning a derelict golf course adjacent to Century Village into Reflection Bay, a large proposed town-center development of retail shops, office space and 689 homes, was going to draw a crowd.
A zoning board hearing on the issue in December at the Vista Center drew hundreds of people, with 446 of them signing comment cards to have their say.
So county officials offered to allow Century Villagers to follow Thursday's commission hearing from their own community, by setting up a live feed of the meeting for broadcast in the condo's spacious auditorium.
But only a few dozen of the condo's residents watched from their own community. The vast majority of Century Villagers made the trek to downtown West Palm Beach, preferring to make a visible display of their interest.
Or as Century Village resident Barbara Weisbecker put it: "I wanna be here in case I have to stand up and holler."
Knowing the persuasive aspect of a large public display, both sides in the dispute did their best to make a show for commissioners.
The golf course owner, Andrew Waldman, contends that the vocal opposition to his plan to develop his property, does not represent the majority of Century Villagers.
But they surely represent the majority of Century Villagers who have come forward to comment on the plan. At the zoning hearing in December, 433 of the 466 comment cards from the audience were against the project. And county commissioners received 2,046 post cards from Century Villagers urging them to oppose the proposed development - far more than the 301 support cards the developer's team presented on Thursday.
The opposition organized five buses to take residents to the governmental center Thursday. But Waldman, not to be outdone, had his own bus transportation plan to make sure that Century Villagers supporting his plan got to the hearing, too.
First come, first seated
And Waldman's four buses beat the opposition buses to the governmental center.
The opposition buses didn't roll from Century Village until 8:15 a.m. By that time, the pro-development buses had already arrived at the governmental center, and that group of project-supporting Century Villagers were occupying many of the seats inside the chamber - the seats that were visible to the commissioners.
"We got our people inside the chamber," Kerry Kilday, the project planner, said as he arrived for the hearing.
Dave Israel, the president of the governing body of Century Village, and one of the outspoken opponents of Reflection Bay, said the developer's bus strategy was clever.
"We were outfoxed," Israel said.
Meanwhile, outside the building, boxes of free doughnuts were offered to those showing up.
Weisbecker didn't eat one, though. They were doughnuts provided by the developer, she said.
"First time in my life I ever walked away from a donut," she said.

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