To Save the Trees, Controversial Riverland Property Might Become City Park

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Update 9/13: Fort Lauderdale city commissioners voted unanimously in favor of the budget, including the purchase of the property located at 2681 Riverland Road.

After delaying development plans for nearly two years, Riverland residents might finally have a real solution to protect more than 400 trees that sit on a lush 5.19-acre private property that is up for sale. Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Romney Rogers has confirmed that he will introduce an amendment at tonight’s budget hearing to allocate funds to purchase the controversial lot located at 2681 Riverland Rd. He will propose converting the land into a public city park with walking trails and a field for youth sports.

“It’s obvious that this is a unique parcel, and when I saw the resistance to the type of development being proposed, I started looking for alternatives,” Rogers tells New Times. “I sense that the park has the most interest and is the most viable.”

Though they originally fought to turn the property into a nature preserve, Riverland residents have sent city commissioners more than 100 messages supporting the plans to build a city park. The proposed park is being heralded as a win not just for the residents who want to keep the character of their community intact but also the property owner who has unsuccessfully tried to sell his land for years.

“It’s positive,” Roger says. “This should be a testimony that neighbors working together can have an impact on the way their community is shaped.”

It all started in May 2015, when the owner, Robert Black, proposed splitting the property into 14 lots. The average lot size would be significantly smaller than the neighboring lots. When the request went before the Planning and Zoning Board, officials voted 4-4. Black withdrew his application before the plan could be heard before the city commission.

Residents have continued fighting Black’s requests. They created an online petition with more than 1,500 signatures. They bombarded board members with emails in opposition, expressing the importance of the many ancient oak trees, sable palms, laurel oaks, native wild orchids, slash pine trees, shrubs, and native vegetation to the character of their neighborhood.

So when Black submitted a new request (with 13 new homes instead of 14) before the Planning and Zoning Board earlier this month, more than 70 residents showed up to the meeting in a sea of matching red shirts to fight it. Board members voted 3-3. Though technically a tie, the request moved to city commissioners as a recommendation to deny.

Lee Bacall, a 24-year resident and secretary of the Riverland Preservation Society, says that trying to find buyers who would not develop the property and leave it as-is was futile. So when the park was proposed, residents were thrilled (even if there were minor concerns about lighting and crime at night). “By and large, people are just happy that the property won’t be developed,” Bacall says. “It was very gratifying to see the whole change in direction from the city.”

A resident named Charlie Leikauf agreed on Facebook: “This is truly our last opportunity to save this piece of property...the City does not want passive preserve parks...They want active parks. We believe that this parcel would be a perfect fit for an active trail Par Course park while retaining the existing tree canopy and potentially re-purpose the existing buildings for a Community Center, pavilion, botanical center, other other various uses.”

But one woman named Barbara Edwards disagreed: “You know they’ll just cut more trees down, manicure the place, patrol cops, put up all kinds of signs...Passive Park acquisition only!”

Part of the funding for the park is expected to come from $750,000 that was put aside by the county when Riverland was annexed into the City of Fort Lauderdale in 2002. If the amendment isn’t accepted at this Wednesday’s budget hearing, there will be another on September 14. Bacall urges residents to write letters to the mayor and commissioners by then.

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