Alarmed by an engineering firm’s report about sub-par conditions from termite damage to loose railings and mold at the historic 1936 former U.S. Coast Guard Station and Cold War-era John F. Kennedy bunker on Peanut Island, the Port of Palm Beach Commission has directed its staff to inspect the 6-acre site next week.
“The last time it was inspected by the port was 2005,” Commissioner Peyton McArthur said Thursday evening. “We have allowed a public asset to deteriorate under our eyes.”
The station, bunker, and five other buildings and docks have possible structural, electrical and fire safety issues that could jeopardize the facilities’ operation and visitors’ safety, a report by CH2M Hill, a global engineering firm with an office in Palm Beach Gardens, said in the 19-page report.
The commission informally directed the staff to report back at its March 19 meeting.
Tom Lundeen, deputy port director and engineer, said the port received the assessment a couple of months ago. It is based on an April 29, 2014 visit by four CH2M Hill professionals.
The land and buildings are owned by the port, but the Palm Beach Maritime Museum has a $100-a-year lease going back to 1992 and operates the facilities.
Anthony Miller, whose company Maritime Business manages the property for the museum, said he disagrees “100 percent” with the report. The museum is in the first stages of a major fund-raising campaign to repair and restore the buildings and grounds, he said. Improvements are needed to attract more paying visitors, especially since Palm Beach County will allow the museum to hold only three weddings a year at the site and won’t permit a restaurant.
“If they were concerned about safety, why wouldn’t they notify us right away and have an emergency meeting?” Miller told the Palm Beach Post prior to the meeting. He said 80 percent of items listed in the report have been taken care of or were never an issue.
Miller said many of the supposed defects the report lists are historical artifacts, such as fire hydrants and an old water pump that have not been used in years.
Lily Holt Dillon of LPD International of Palm Beach told commissioners her firm is working to raise whatever funds are needed to make the old Coast Guard Station, the bunker and the rest of the site better than ever. Hedrick Brothers Construction has visited the site numerous times, and she is waiting for a cost estimate.
McArthur and Commissioner Jean Enright suggested that perhaps it’s time to end the lease with the museum and work with another operator such as Palm Beach County. Commissioner Wayne Richards said he was leaning in that direction also.
“Terrible and horrible,” Commissioner George Mastics said about the property’s condition as shown in photographs taken by CH2M Hill
“I’ve never seen such a disgraceful exhibit of dilapidated crap,” Mastics said. “Maybe what we should do is go in with a bulldozer and tear everything down.”
Enright said she visited the site a month ago and described it as a “mess.”
Port consulting attorney Greg Picken said that he has no doubt that as the property’s owner the port could be held liable for any issues resulting from the conditions.
John Grant, the museum’s president, said he knew nothing about the report until the Palm Beach Post contacted him Monday. After requesting a copy from the port, museum officials received one Tuesday.
The report says the facilities are in moderate disrepair and lists dozens of problems such as popping paint, cracked sidewalks and dry rot. The Kennedy bunker has 17 deficiencies such as mold and mildew on the walls, inadequate lighting, termite damage in the door frames and rust and corrosion on its exterior.
“Outside of the generally worn condition of the facility, there are potential trip, fall and other hazards throughout the site that could injure visitors to the site,” the report states.
Miller said that according to workers on the site on the day of the inspection, the team of four plus four assistants showed up but never asked any questions. Workers were in the middle of projects such as painting. The more than a dozen boats are left out all the time unless there is a storm coming, when they are put in the boathouse.
Grant said repairs have been ongoing for 20 years. Since receiving $615,000 in state grants in the early 1990s to preserve the station, its boathouse and the Kennedy bunker, the group has not received any other government money other than FEMA funds to repair damage after the 2004-05 hurricanes.
“The county always wanted to take it over,” Grant said in an interview Tuesday. “They have been trying to kick us out of there for 10 years.
“The Kennedy bunker is a presidential treasure. Congress resolved it is a presidential treasure, and therefore it has to be protected by somebody — the port, or me, the museum,” Grant said.
“When we got the property, the Kennedy bunker was nothing. It was full of feces and flooded. When we got the Coast Guard building, we did $90,000 worth of rewiring. We put new roofs on it,” Grant said. “The port was interested in getting someone over there to take care of it. They were happy to have us come in.”
Grant said he keeps the museum going despite what he calls a lack of support from the county government or the port, because he believes strongly in educating people about the maritime industry and its history as well as the area’s history.
Lundeen said he was not surprised by the findings.
“I knew we might have some problems and issues out there. I did not know the extent of it,” Lundeen said.
Almira and Lundeen said that in recent years the port has told the maritime museum that it must follow the law. If it is going to have weddings and other events, it must get a county permit, and it cannot have helicopters landing or electric cables exposed.
The 79-acre island is in the northern portion of the Lake Worth Lagoon at Lake Worth Inlet.
It was originally formed beginning in 1918 from sand dredged to create the Lake Worth Inlet and the maintenance of the Intracoastal Waterway. It grew from a sand bar to a 10-acre lump, and gradually to its present size.
By 1923 the Port of Palm Beach (then known as the Lake Worth Inlet District) was using the island as a spoil site for dredged sand.
The state gave permission for Shawano Plantation which grew peanuts in Belle Glade to use the island as a terminal for shipping peanut oil. Its parent company, The W.H. Brown Co., bought the island.
Those plans were abandoned and in 1946, the company sold the island back to the port for $45,000.
In 1936 a U.S. Coast Guard Station opened on the island. It closed in 1995.
In 1961 the Kennedy Bunker is built in secrecy to provide a shelter and command post.
In 1984 Palm Beach County and the port entered into an agreement for maintenance of the island, provided it remains a passive recreation area.
In the early 1990s, the port sold the northern half of the island to the Florida Inland Navigation District for $2.5 million.
Over the years the island has been sought after by developers, and the town of Palm Beach wanted to annex it in the early 1990s.
In 2005 the island’s newly enhanced environmental and park amenities open.
Today, FIND owns the island’s northern portion, and the port owns the southern half.
The port and FIND still use the interior as a place to dump dredged sand.
Sources: Palm Beach County, Palm Beach Post archives.