Palmetto Bay Brawl: An Election, a Private School, and a $13 Million Lawsuit Sully an Unspoiled Suburb

As most South Florida neighborhoods have sprouted unseemly subdivisions like toadstools in the shade, the Village of Palmetto Bay has remained a sleepy, middle-class enclave since incorporating a decade ago. Modest houses and mango groves still line this stretch of Old Cutler Road. It's a setting fit for a '50s sitcom.

That could all change November 6, however, when residents go to the polls. Up for a vote: two spots on the city council and an amendment to the village charter. Supporters of the Neighborhood Protection Amendment say it's crucial to keeping developers from ruining their idyll. But their opponents are armed with outside cash, a political action committee, a powerful private school, and candidates poised to push through their pro-growth agenda.

"This is about saving the village," says Jack Fell of the group Palmetto Bay Concerned Residents. "These protections have to be put in place. I don't want a gas station next to my house."

The development dispute dates back to 2008, when private Episcopal school Palmer Trinity sued the village for denying a 33-acre expansion. A bitter court battle ensued. On July 5, the Third District Court of Appeal sided with the school; the council reluctantly agreed to Palmer Trinity's plan.

But over the past four years, the school spat has mushroomed into a full-blown fight over the village's future. Palmer Trinity is now seeking up to $13 million in lost tuition from the village, and some locals are furious that Palmetto Bay has spent $600,000 on legal fees. Now a PAC called Recall Palmetto Bay is demanding Mayor Shelley Stanczyk's removal for opposing the school.

"I was tired of seeing the council bully this really terrific school," says J.B. Harris, an attorney behind the PAC and the father of a Palmer student. "It's absolutely a silent civil war for the hearts and minds of the residents down there."

But Fell — a spirited 79-year-old — says there is nothing progressive about the PAC's pro-growth platform. He points out that David Singer, another PAC founder, works for a real estate development company. And Wayne Rosen, one of the county's biggest builders, has donated thousands to the PAC's candidates.

"They are all about making money," Fell says. "If you say a nice, peaceful, tranquil neighborhood is old-fashioned, then I guess I'm old-fashioned."

 
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