A season in which the novel coronavirus pandemic shared headlines with the 45th president of the United States has come to a close on the island.

Donald Trump returned to his private Mar-a-Lago Club before lunchtime Jan. 20, finishing the final few hours of his lone presidential term far from Washington, D.C., where he had lived the previous four years with his wife, Melania, and teenage son, Barron.

His return to Palm Beach — three months after he was diagnosed with COVID-19 and later hospitalized — was not without controversy.

Neighbors of the former president want to block him from living at the club he bought in 1986, citing a 1993 agreement he signed with the town that allowed Trump to convert the private residence into a private club. 

By living at Mar-a-Lago, his neighbors say, Trump is violating the agreement, which stipulates that the club’s 10 guest suites can be used only by members and their guests for a maximum of three times a year and for no longer than seven days at a time. Those seven-day stays can’t be strung together consecutively.

Neighbors also claim that Trump living at Mar-a-Lago would pose security concerns and devalue surrounding properties. 

“My clients purchased their homes after the agreement was signed, with the reasonable expectation that this contract would be honored and enforced by the town,” Reginald Stambaugh, a West Palm Beach attorney who represents Trump’s neighbors, told the Town Council in February. “This agreement assured that my clients would be able to live peacefully and enjoy the privacy afforded others on the island.”

Trump a ‘bona fide employee’? 

Trump’s attorneys and town officials dispute that he is violating the 1993 agreement.

Town Attorney John Randolph told the council in February that Trump is permitted to live at Mar-a-Lago as a “bona fide employee” of the club based on the town’s zoning code.

The town defines “employee” as “any person generally working onsite for the establishment and includes sole proprietors, partners, limited partners, corporate officers and the like.”

As the president of Mar-a-Lago, Trump is an employee — or officer — of the club, said his attorney, John B. Marion, and under the town’s zoning code he is permitted to live there.

“He was president before he was president of the United States, and now he’s president of the club again,” Marion said.

The Town Council has yet to act on the issue, and Trump and his family continue to live at Mar-a-Lago.

In February, the helipad that was built on the club’s west lawn a month after Trump took office was demolished.

The town does not allow helicopters or helipads, but it made an exception for Mar-a-Lago on the conditions that it be used only for business related to the executive office and that it must be removed when Trump left office.

While Trump and Mar-a-Lago made national and international headlines during the season, other issues made news closer to home.

Early rollout of vaccines

The coronavirus pandemic, which was in its seventh month as the season got underway in October, continues to affect residents, business owners, visitors and employees.

COVID-19 vaccines became a big issue nationally in December, when the first Pfizer and Moderna shots were administered to health-care workers and senior citizens.

Many residents were among the first in the county to receive doses. The town’s Fire Rescue Department planned several months ahead to prepare for vaccine distribution, which began Jan. 5 at the South Fire Station and St. Edward’s Parrish Hall.

More than 2,000 residents residents received their vaccines through the town.

“The No. 1 priority of the last year was keeping our community and staff safe from COVID, while still efficiently and effectively running our town business,” Councilwoman Julie Araskog said. “Chief Caristo, Town Manager Blouin, Deputy Town Manager Boodheshwar and Council President Maggie Zeidman, along with the council, took measures to keep COVID at a minimal spread and to provide vaccines to our residents.”

Town bids farewell to Coniglio

Araskog was one of three council members who were sworn in last month as part of a ceremony honoring longtime Mayor Gail Coniglio for her service and dedication to the town.

New Mayor Danielle Moore and new Councilman Edward “Ted” Cooney also took their oaths at the April 13 event, which drew more than 100 people to Mizner Memorial Fountain next to Town Hall.

In remarks to the standing-room-only crowd, Coniglio spoke of her lengthy service to the town, and thanked her colleagues for their support, guidance and stewardship.

“With the help and leadership of a caring Town Council, solid town management and dedicated employees, we made the town of Palm Beach a better place,” said Coniglio, who announced in December that she would not seek a sixth term as mayor. “Together, we continue to make contributions that ensure the future of our island paradise.”

The council’s newest member is a familiar face on the island.

A former Landmarks Preservation Commission chairman who defeated Candace Rojas for the Group 1 seat in the March 9 municipal election, Cooney, 35, grew up in Palm Beach and is a longtime public servant.

He said he ran for a council seat because he wanted to give back to the community in which he was raised and be a voice for the town’s younger families.

“The government’s been typically representative of an older population,” he told the Daily News in March. “With my history of service to the town and my knowledge of issues at Town Hall, I was kind of uniquely qualified to step into that role and provide some representation for the next generation of Palm Beachers.”

Cooney steps into the council seat vacated by Moore, who is a former council president and lifelong resident.

In announcing her run for mayor in December, Moore praised Coniglio for her many years of service.

“These are big boots to fill, but I’ll do my very best,” she told the Daily News.

Retail study could aid businesses

Retail has been hit especially hard by the pandemic as many customers turned to online shopping, but sales surged late in the season.

The council has been looking for ways to revive the town’s shopping areas and streamline town code that might be hindering success.

In February, the council approved a contract with urban growth firm YARD & Company to conduct a retail study of the town.

Set to begin this fall, the study will help determine which of the town’s retail areas are feasible for additional retail redevelopment, and whether retail reduction is deemed necessary.

Restaurants struggled to draw customers amid the pandemic, but received a boost last May when the town enacted an emergency COVID-19 program that permitted eateries to seek approval to temporarily expand outdoor seating in privately and publicly owned spaces.

More help could be on the way, as the council authorized Planning, Building & Zoning Director Wayne Bergman in February to review current regulations for outdoor seating as the first step toward possibly expanding it.

Current regulations, which allow for limited outdoor seating and include numerous restrictions, would prohibit many of the outdoor seating arrangements that have been approved by town staff under the town’s emergency COVID-19 program, Bergman told the council.

Businesses seeking permanent outdoor seating must get council approval, as Cafe L’Europe did in November.

Construction projects continue

Work on council-approved construction projects throughout the town continued during the season, with a handful nearing completion.

A $38 million Town Marina renovation project begun last spring is expected to be complete in the fall, Director of Public Works Paul Brazil told the council in February.

Work includes the expansion of 84 slips to allow larger boats, replacing stationary docks with floating docks, adding a fourth dock at the north end of the marina, and installing a new security system. 

Utilities undergrounding work also continues throughout the town as part of a nine-year project that began in 2017.

Other projects begun during the season include an $11 million beach renourishment effort to replace hurricane-depleted sand at Phipps Ocean Park and area dunes. Work is expected to be complete later this spring.

The town also completed an historic site survey that will be used to support preservation planning efforts and aid in future development.

While the 2020-2021 season has come to an end, Araskog said she already is looking ahead to the fall.

“In the upcoming year, I believe it is of the utmost importance to follow our Comprehensive Plan in regard to preventing our 12-mile island from becoming too urbanized, and to begin zoning reform on our residential neighborhoods, including FEMA challenges, to maintain the character and charm of our town,” she said.

jwagner@pbdailynews.com

@JRWagner5



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