Boatyard showdown: Safe Harbor Rybovich expansion depends on change of heart

Riviera Beach City Council voted 3-2 to move boatyard expansion forward but now a 4-1 vote is required.


A city measure that empowers neighbors is setting up a Sept. 6 showdown between a multimillion-dollar superyacht repair yard and homeowners in Riviera Beach.

Expansion of the Safe Harbor Rybovich boatyard, where some of the world’s most expensive yachts go for dry dock repairs, hangs in the balance.

The City Council gave its blessing Aug. 16 by 3-2 votes on three measures sought by Safe Harbor. But because neighboring residents gathered enough signatures on a petition, Safe Harbor needs 4-1 votes on Sept. 6 to make the changes stick, city officials said.

That means the district’s representative, KaShamba Miller-Anderson, or council member Tradrick McCoy would have to change their no votes on second reading for the $50 million project to move forward. 

They must negotiate a precarious balancing act between the needs of a neighborhood fearing its own extinction and the continued expansion of a pivotal economic engine in this waterfront city.

Safe Harbor is considered the world’s largest marina owner and operator. Its parent corporation, Dallas-based Sun Communities, paid $369 million for Rybovich’s century-old boatyard on North Flagler Drive in West Palm Beach and the Riviera yard in late 2020. 

Safe Harbor
Map shows how close the Safe Harbor site, marked Subject Property Area, is to the ocean inlet. (Safe Harbor presentation to city)
Safe Harbor Rybovich
Safe Harbor’s traffic plan. (Aug. 16 council meeting)

Since 2006, Rybovich had spent about $38 million assembling properties in Riviera Beach east of Broadway between 19th Street and East 22nd Court, property records reveal. When complete, it’s campus would cover 24 acres.

Now Safe Harbor is moving all of its repair work to Riviera Beach from West Palm Beach, where it has built two residential towers and plans more.

The industry giant also promises to add about 70 jobs to its existing 280, a 30 percent expansion. 

And a neighborhood feels threatened.

Safe Harbor
A home in Lakeview Park, a neighborhood of about 200 homes immediately north of the Safe Harbor boatyard. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

Requests ‘flat-out ignored’

Residents in Lakeview Park, about 200 homes wedged between the northern edge of the boatyard and Blue Heron Boulevard, worry about fumes, traffic, lighting, stormwater runoff and loss of property values as they become walled off by a boatyard and a proposed five-story parking garage.

Repeatedly, residents said they were frustrated with attending meetings, posing questions and seeking concessions and getting no response.

“I think we came up with some really reasonable requests and those requests have been largely ignored, I would say flat-out ignored, by the applicant,” Brandy Davis-Balsamo told the council Aug. 16. “Which is surprising because they are not unreasonable by any means.” 

Among those requests: Increasing the landscape buffer along East 22nd Court and including the neighborhood in a traffic study.

Lakeview Park
Brandy Davis-Balsamo fears for her Lakeview Park neighborhood if the Safe Harbor boatyard, right, expands. She is standing on East 21st Street, which would be sold to Safe Harbor. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

Residents also fear the expansion will break up or end forever efforts to make Broadway a pedestrian-friendly corridor culminating in the city’s marina on the south end. 

“We could do so much if we built that corridor out and we did it right. And now we’re turning it into an industrial zone,” resident Julie Logsdon said.

Safe Harbor is required to build stores on two blocks along Broadway to help make it more walkable, although the industry giant says it doesn’t have any potential tenants.

Residential development is not part of the plan, a violation of the city’s growth plan, a lawyer representing Davis-Balsamo said in a May letter. 

The current site plan contemplates an industrial building with a commercial component that is inappropriately walled off to pedestrian and public access. Should the city consider the site plan, as is, it would be greenlighting the evisceration of its own downtown area,” Pompano Beach attorney Shai Ozery wrote.

Riviera Beach neighborhood
The home and front yard of Safe Harbor opponent Ana Vergne in Lakeview Park. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

Ultimately, neighbors fear the superyacht repair yard will chip away at their neighborhood and continue expanding north.

They’ve engaged a lawyer from the Environmental Justice Clinic at the University of Miami who argues against the proposal but stops short of calling the city’s failure to protect the neighborhood environmental racism.

Sixty-two percent of the residents are considered low-income, while 60% are people of color,” the lawyer, Abigail Fleming, wrote to the city. “The Lakeview Park communities have been plagued for years by environmental hazards and inaction by local officials. If the site plan is approved as is, it will be another example of (the) City of Riviera Beach allowing developer interests to come before the concerns of its residents.”

Two shrink-wrapped superyachts in the Safe Harbor Rybovich boatyard off East 21st Street in Riviera Beach. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

Shrink-wrapped superyachts

Residents now can drive or walk on public streets amid land on both sides owned by Safe Harbor, with lines of giant yachts looming high above fencing. 

Once the changes are made, the boatyard will extend to East 22nd Court with just one public street cutting through the waterfront campus, East 22nd Street.

Superyachts, some extending more than 100 feet, come into the yard only from the water for dry dock repairs. Repair crews erect scaffolding around them and seal them off in plastic, clearly visible from the street. 

Safe Harbor rejected a request from OnGardens to tour the boatyard. 

Safe Harbor Rybovich
Safe Harbor traffic consultant Mike Spruce, right, and Richard Pinsky. (Aug. 16 council meeting)

The industry giant’s approach to repairs captures all airborne contaminants, Safe Harbor representative Richard Pinsky told the council. Repeated tours by fire and environmental inspectors have turned up nothing, he said.

He acknowledged that the yard would store diesel fuel for use in equipment and generators but not to supply yachts. 

“No boats get fueled here. No boats get fueled in the water. Some of the other folks, not us, use fuel,” he said, an apparent reference to Viking Yachts, whose waterfront site is encapsulated by the Safe Harbor site. “We do not.”

As it is now, work on yachts will remain on the south end of the yard, farthest from the neighborhood, while the north side will be used for boat storage and warehouses, Pinsky said. 

While the plans would allow construction of a 536-space parking garage, Pinsky told the council the garage depends on public demand, not employee parking.

“But whether that parking garage gets built or not, we’re years away,” he said. “Even if it does get built, and it may not get built, but if we do not show it (on the site plan) it will be a nightmare coming back to you.”

Safe Harbor expansion
Red marks the streets that will be abandoned to Safe Harbor in exchange for $1.6 million. (Aug. 16 council meeting)

Frustration over traffic plan

Council members criticized Safe Harbor’s traffic plan, which would have the main entrance off of East 22nd Street and a secondary gated entrance off East 20th Street. Both intersections with Broadway have stop lights. 

Safe Harbor would close 21st Street.

A two-way, north-south street, Avenue B, would be converted to one-way traffic to allow Lakeview Park residents seeking to leave their homes and travel south on Broadway to access East 22nd Street and use the stoplight to make the left turn. 

Residents feared East 22nd Street would become a traffic nightmare.

Riviera Beach City Council
Douglas Lawson (Aug. 16 council meeting)

Council Chairperson Doug Lawson expressed frustration with the traffic flow and parking, since many weekend boaters park along 21st Street. 

“I was excited with an actual parking garage,” Lawson said. “But now that there’s no parking garage, it’s going to be surface-level just for the facility, I’m not sure where people are going to park.”

Safe Harbor’s traffic consultant, Mike Spruce of Kimley Horn, said residents would not be competing with Safe Harbor workers for access to East 22nd Street.

“It’s always a good story to tell that the world is coming to an end because of traffic. But the reality of it is the roads aren’t heavily used now — they will be more heavily used with the traffic from this facility — but the residents will not be impeded to leave to go to the light at 22nd street,” he said.

“Again, not everybody, but the majority of people are leaving in the morning and coming home in the evening, whereas the workers here are doing exactly the opposite.”

Despite his concerns, Lawson voted for the road abandonment on first reading. 

It passed 4-0 with McCoy out of the room. Safe Harbor has agreed to pay the city $1.6 million for the abandoned roadways

It also has pledged $603,715 to satisfy offsite civic open space requirements and $431,677 as a way to avoid landscaping requirements that it says it can’t meet in a boatyard. That’s a total of $2.7 million in payments to the city.

The city is targeting some of the money toward green space and landscaping for its proposed City Hall on the west side of Broadway, immediately across from Safe Harbor’s 24-acre campus. 

Aside from the four measures returning for second reading, the council also is scheduled to review Safe Harbor’s site plan for the first time on Sept. 6.

Safe Harbor expansion
The view of the Safe Harbor boatyard from East 22nd Street and Avenue C. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

This story also appeared with permission on Aug. 30 in the digital edition of the Stet Palm Beach newsletter.

©2023 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.

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Author: Joel Engelhardt

Joel Engelhardt is an award-winning newspaper reporter and editor based in Palm Beach Gardens. He spent more than 40 years in the newspaper business, including 28 years at The Palm Beach Post. As a reporter, he covered countywide growth, the 2000 election and the birth of Cityplace in West Palm Beach. As an editor, he oversaw probes into the opioid scourge, private prisons, police-involved shootings and more. For seven years, he worked on the paper’s editorial board. Joel left The Post in December 2020. He and his wife, Donna, have lived together in Palm Beach Gardens since 1992.

3 thoughts on “Boatyard showdown: Safe Harbor Rybovich expansion depends on change of heart”

  1. Thank you for reporting this! Watching them gobble up the surrounding small residential homes is an eye opener.

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