Charles Vavrus Sr. wasn’t inclined to trust government.
But owning the county’s largest piece of undeveloped land within a city meant he couldn’t avoid government — especially when he spent more than 20 years trying to develop the land and needed official approvals to do it.
The namesake owner of the former Vavrus Ranch property in Palm Beach Gardens, whose land once was closely identified with ambitious plans for The Scripps Research Institute, died Sunday. He was 84.
Vavrus, much like his former 4,763-acre ranch on the city’s western edge, had a colorful history in the community, and his clashes with government leaders became well-known.
“Charlie certainly was intriguing,” said Karen Marcus, a Palm Beach County commissioner for 28 years. “He had a somewhat challenging relationship with the city. … He kept the government on their toes, that’s for sure.”
Vavrus, an Illinois native, purchased his cattle ranch in 1975, after starting his career in land development and health clubs in the Midwest.
Vavrus efforts to develop his ranch hit many roadblocks over the decades.
Most notably, in 1999, after he cleared trees without city permits, the city slapped him with $2 million in fines and sued. He countersued, prompting Councilman Eric Jablin to say: “I don’t think this is the greatest public relations move in the world, but he’s entitled to every legal avenue he can find.”
After that dispute, Donna Brosemer, a former Palm Beach Gardens resident and government lobbyist, said she worked with Vavrus to get state law changed regarding the power local governments had on agricultural issues.
“I loved Charlie. I had a real soft spot for him,” Brosemer said.
Given Vavrus’ battles with the city, Brosemer said it’s not surprising his legacy is “mixed.”
“He was a simple but shrewd man,” Brosemer said.
Vavrus’ efforts to develop the ranch began in 1991, when he proposed a community of 18,000 homes plus businesses and more than 100 miles of pedestrian and bicycle paths. Residents, expected to number 42,000, would get around on golf carts.
He told The Palm Beach Post at the time that he got his development ideas from talking to neighbors. “We’re scared of our neighbors, instead of getting to know them,” he said. “We’ve abandoned so much of what makes a good community. We keep putting walls and barriers up.”
His proposal never gained enough traction for a vote.
More than a decade later, the Vavrus Ranch was a key player in the push to bring Scripps to Palm Beach County. At one point, Vavrus stood to be paid $51 million for his land. But the plan fell through when an environmental lawsuit blocked Scripps from building on the neighboring Mecca Farms property and county commissioners voted in 2006 to support a site in Jupiter’s Abacoa community.
Two years ago, Vavrus inked a $20 million deal to sell his land to WAL Development Group. They have proposed Avenir, originally with 7,600 homes, a number being reconsidered after Palm Beach Gardens officials said they couldn’t support that level of development.
Even though the property is in new hands under a new name, many believe it will remain Vavrus’ legacy.
“I don’t care what they name this project if it ever gets approved. It’ll always be known as the Vavrus property,” Marcus said.
Brosemer agreed, saying “his impact will be felt in Gardens for a long time, because that’s what happens when you own 4,700 acres. That will always be known as the Vavrus Ranch.”
Vavrus was born and raised south of Chicago. He started his career managing farms in Illinois, an official obituary stated. He developed, built and managed more than 8,000 apartment units in five states before branching into cattle ranching in South Florida in the 1970s, it said. He also had a strong commitment to exercise and fitness, having opened several health clubs in Illinois and Texas.
Vavrus lived on Singer Island.
His family could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Funeral arrangements are being handled by the Howard-Quattlebaum Funeral Home in North Palm Beach.