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Palm Beach Daily News
Many residents made perhaps their last-ditch effort Wednesday to stop plans to build a new recreation center this summer.
They were unsuccessful. The Town Council voted 3-2 to approve eight variances and a site plan review needed to build a new 17,000-square-foot center at 340 Seaview Ave.
The vote came after more than four hours of discussion and debate about the proposal. It was essentially the final public hearing in a debate about the controversial project that has been ongoing for more than a year. Council members say they've received "massive" amounts of emails, letters and phone calls from residents both for and against the project over the last several months.
"This has been a long, arduous process but I think it's been an open and transparent process," Mayor Gail Coniglio said. "We heard the residents. We've listened carefully. I think we've worked diligently on this project. I think it should move forward."
Attorney John Randolph reminded the council members more than once to base their decisions on evidence presented at the hearing. The applicant -- the town -- had to show the "hardships" in meeting existing zoning rules in order to receive variances for height, side yard setbacks and open space.
The current center itself does not conform to town code in many ways, according to staff.
Perhaps the most significant variance granted Wednesday allows the overall height of the gymnasium to be 27 feet, 3 feet taller than the existing building and 5 feet taller than what's allowed by code.
Other variances allow shorter setbacks, signage on a scoreboard, rooftop air conditioning units and for 50.6 percent of the property to remain "open space" (the same as what exists).
Councilwoman Maggie Zeidman said the variances are "essential" and "reasonable."
"I find that this is a unique situation," she said in regards to the center being located in a residential zone. "We are applying residential code to a town building that is a recreation center. The code provisions are meant to be applied to a residential area, not a school and not a recreation center."
Attorney Maura Ziska, who presented the variance requests to the council, said a recreation center has a different use than a residence and shouldn't be held to the same standards. She also said there's a hardship because the center is surrounded by athletic fields, parking, tennis courts, a basketball court and green space that needs to remain in place.
"You have to build in a certain spot," she said.
Zeidman, Councilman Richard Kleid and Councilwoman Danielle Moore agreed. Councilwomen Julie Araskog and Bobbie Lindsay voted against the variances. Both questioned whether the variance requests met several code requirements.
"I need to make sure that we can meet the legal rights to pass this as a variance," Lindsay said.
Araskog wanted the Architectural Commission to see changes to the floor plan before the council vote. The commission approved the design last month on the condition the architect switch the location of the fitness center and staff offices. That change is scheduled to be presented to the board later this month.
Most of the hours long discussion on the recreation center focused on topics unrelated to the variance requests -- including the cost of renovation versus new construction, the merits of a previous survey, the preservation of outdoor space and the need for an indoor gymnasium.
Several residents spoke for and against the project. Some opponents raised concerns about another project in an already construction-weary town, traffic, and whether the new center is needed based on what they call a "flawed survey."
"I don't really understand how we got where we are," Jeff Cloninger said. "The residents don't want it. The old center meets the needs of the community."
Melissa Ceriale disagreed.
"I caution you not to be overly swayed by the loudest voice. It's not necessarily the majority opinion," she said, reminding the council there was a lot of "vocal negativity" about Publix, Worth Avenue restoration and several other major projects.
-- akopf@ pbdailynews.com Twitter: @aleesekopf
Most of the hourslong discussion on the recreation center focused on topics unrelated to the variance requests.
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