Did Wildflower referendum start a movement? Will it affect city races?


A group of residents five months ago successfully barred development on city-owned waterfront property through a campaign aimed at protecting a patch of land known as the Wildflower, for the nightclub that once inhabited that space.

That effort has powered two residents’ candidacies in Tuesday’s municipal election.

In an attempt to shift the power dynamic of the Boca Raton city council, Alfred “Al” Zucaro, a former West Palm Beach commissioner turned Boca Raton civic activist, and Andrea O’Rourke, a local activist, are running for mayor and city council member, respectively.

» RELATED: Zucaro, two council candidates run on low-growth platform in Boca

Before they were candidates, Zucaro published while O’Rourke edited the blog BocaWatch, which was often critical of what they call over-development and of the city leaders who approve of such development.

BocaWatch was instrumental in propelling the citizen-initiated campaign to place an ordinance on the November ballot to preserve Boca’s waterfront property for public use. The ballot question received overwhelming support from voters.

“That was the engine behind my campaign,” said O’Rourke, who announced her bid for city council one month before the November election. “When that vote won so overwhelmingly, that definitely charged my campaign with energy.”

RELATED: Complete coverage of Palm Beach County municipal elections on March 14

Using word-of-mouth, door-to-door campaigning and frequent posts on BocaWatch, a group of about 80 residents collected more than 1,700 signatures in just 28 days, which exceeded the required 1,200 signatures needed to place the ballot question before voters.

While O’Rourle wasn’t among those residents because she was campaigning, she supported the effort wholeheartedly.

“I knew then that I definitely have my finger of the pulse of the people,” she said.

The success of the ballot question played a large role in Zucaro’s decision to file at the 11th hour for the mayoral race against incumbent Mayor Susan Haynie. He submitted paperwork on the last day of qualifying period.

“That (initiative) was an incredible push-back by the residents,” he said.

RELATED: All Palm Beach County municipal races on the March 14 ballot

O’Rourke — who faces two other newcomers, attorney Andy Thomson and retired businesswoman Emily Gentile, for term-limited Councilman Mike Mullaugh’s seat — and Zucaro are both running on a citizen-oriented platform.

“The fact of the matter is,” Zucaro said, “the citizens have a voice. And they exercised it in November.”

Despite having less experience in Boca Raton politics and less campaign money — Zucaro has raised $51,000, largely self-financed, compared to Haynie’s $94,000 — Zucaro said he’s confident that residents are behind him.

“People are pretty smart, they see through all the smokescreen,” he said. “Just like they did with the Wildflower.”

The city was in negotiation with Hillstone Restaurant Group for a waterfront restaurant at the Wildflower, a still-vacant lot at 551 E. Palmetto Park Road purchased by the city for $7.5 million in 2009.

Once the citizen-initiated ordinance was adopted, negotiations with Hillston ended.

Haynie was in support of the waterfront restaurant but was in full support of hearing from the residents during the election, she said.

“I wouldn’t translate that into a huge city movement to change the makeup of the council though,” said Haynie, who says she supports responsible growth in Boca Raton.

Thomson, endorsed by many of the same organizations and individuals as Haynie, called the citizen-initiative misleading.

“Voters weren’t asked whether they want a park or restaurant on the Wildflower,” Thomson said. “They were asked if they want to preserve the property as a park. Who wouldn’t want to keep parks in Boca Raton?”

Zucaro has a different interpretation.

“People are smart. They see through all the smokescreen,” he said. “People came out and voted very significantly. It’s evidence we’re a political force.”

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