The city owns and operates the Riviera Beach Municipal Marina, which was built in 1981 on seven acres of prime waterfront property on the west bank of the Lake Worth Lagoon, north of the Lake Worth Inlet. The full-service marina currently has 150 wet slips for long-term, monthly or transient use, 340 dry-stack spaces for boats up to 30 feet, fuel and pump out stations. But there is little doubt that its full potential as a revenue source has not been developed.
Plans to do just that suffered a number of blows in recent years, according to news reports from Palm Beach County. One was a new state law that prevented governmental agencies from seizing private property for commercial development – eminent domain — which scuttled any plan to take over contiguous private property for a marina project. Another was the collapse of the real estate market.
But even more significant has been more recent resistance by a determined group of residents who have been standing up to city officials and big business in what is being described as a classic David and Goliath confrontation. At the center of the current controversy is Rybovich, a company owned by Wayne Huizenga Jr., son of the billionaire former Miami Dolphins owner.
Last Sept. 15, the City Council approved a proposal for Rybovich to lease 121,000 square feet at the southern part of the marina to develop a facility to service mega-yachts. The 25-year lease requires Ryobich to pay the city $581,040, along with about $150,000 in property taxes, annually. But the lease ran up against a group, Citizens Task Force, led by activist Ms. Emma Bates. They saw the deal as a sell-out of an important birthright of residents. The group launched a successful petition drive that forced the fate of the lease to a referendum – which Citizens Task Force won in the November elections.
Even though a judge approved the wording of that ballot, the language was determined to be confusing enough for the city to go back to voters this month and ask then to rescind the November vote, which they did. But that happened a few days after Mr. Huizenga, accompanied by such unlikely allies as Democratic Congressman Alcee Hastings and Republican Congressman Allen West, announced he was withdrawing his proposal to develop a facility on the city marina and would instead spend $45.5 million for a project on family-owned property nine miles away.
But the ballot reversal clears the way once again for Mr. Huinzega, too, to reverse himself and pursue his original plan. If that happens, the battle would be joined all over again. But it has to come to an end – and soon. Riviera Beach, like most other municipalities around the country, is reeling from economic shock. Obviously, too, there is a strong sentiment in the city against handing over any part of the marina to a big-time developer.
Ms. Bates has said she is not against development but opposes a monolithic project. She wants more resident-friendly features such as shops, restaurants and a public market. Such an approach, if incorporated into the marina project, is likely to maximize the marina’s potential as a revenue generator.
There is nothing wrong with a company like Rybovich leading the charge. But such a company must not be allowed to develop the marina without being specifically required to ensure that the widest possible impact is felt on the city. That means not just the fees and taxes, shops, restaurants and a public market but also a stated commitment and plan of action to introduce the business of yacht servicing – and perhaps even yachting — to residents, especially the young, through apprenticeship and outreach programs. Where specific skills are needed, the lessee should commit to a training program that will ensure residents have those skills.
It would seem that much of the antagonism that surrounds the Rybovich deal is based on the perception that the company will simply pay a fixed sum every year for 25 years and that will be the end of its obligation to be a good corporate citizen. It is that perception that the city leaders and Rybovich and residents have to work on. Development, in the final analysis, must be a partnership that benefits all and be seen as such.