From Trump ties to a tornado: Palm Beach Gardens’ top stories of 2017

Updated Dec 26, 2017
The remains of the home team bleachers rest crumpled against a stand of pine trees at the Benjamin School’s Upper School campus in Palm Beach Gardens after the overnight storms apparently picked up bleachers from the other side of the field Monday, January 23, 2017. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

1. TERRIFYING TORNADO: A tornado with 90 mph winds tore through a swath of Palm Beach Gardens and Juno Beach in January, collapsing windows and sending roof tiles flying into the bedrooms of houses in the Mirabella at Mirasol community about 2 a.m. The Benjamin School athletic fields and William T. Dwyer High School sustained millions of dollars in damage that disrupted spring sports practices and games.

RELATED: Up to $1 million damage at Dwyer High

The tornado peeled back the roof on one Dwyer classroom and rendered four to six classrooms unusable. It cracked a glass atrium in the school’s main stairwell that canceled classes for 2,200 students. Students returned to school the next day.

The tornado, which cut a path nearly 6 miles long and 130 yards wide, also broke glass, twisted gutters and shredded metal skirting at a Juno Beach mobile home park.

2. VENUS WILLIAMS CRASH: Palm Beach Gardens police have said Venus Williams will not face charges in a June crash outside BallenIsles in which a 78-year-old man from The Acreage was injured. Jerome Barson died weeks later from complications of the injuries he suffered in the crash.

RELATED: Venus Williams crash: What caused other traffic at intersection?

Linda Barson, Jerome’s widow, was driving the Hyundai Accent that struck the passenger side of Williams’ SUV as Williams crossed Northlake Boulevard from Steeplechase. The Barson family filed a civil lawsuit against Williams. The lawsuit is ongoing.

The fallout from the crash overshadowed Williams at Wimbledon, where she broke down during a news conference when asked about the crash.

3. TRUMP CONNECTIONS: Palm Beach Gardens is home to a number of celebrities and other big names, including in the political arena. Former presidential candidate Ben Carson, a Palm Beach Gardens resident, was confirmed as President Donald Trump’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development by a narrow Senate vote in March.

More recently, former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort has had his house arrest transferred from Virginia to his home in BallenIsles. Manafort bought a 5,231-square-foot home in BallenIsles for $1.5 million in 2007. He got a homestead exemption in 2011 and registered to vote in Palm Beach County that year.

Manafort and associate Rick Gates were indicted by a grand jury Oct. 30 in an investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller. They are accused of laundering millions of dollars through overseas shell companies and banks.

4. SPEEDY HURRICANE IRMA CLEAN-UP: Palm Beach County was spared the worst of Hurricane Irma’s impact, but the storm left behind enormous amounts of tree branches, torn fences and other trash that people quickly tired of watching turn brown.

Palm Beach Gardens’ contractor Ceres Environmental Services had finished its final sweep for the yard waste by the first week in October, surpassing other cities’ and the county’s cleanup efforts.

Ceres dumped the 67,294 cubic yards of vegetative debris in an enormous heap between Mirasol Park and Marsh Pointe Elementary School. It stayed there until Ceres ground it up and hauled it out.

5. CONTINUED GROWTH: The city keeps adding to its tax rolls both by new construction and annexation. The City Council annexed the 97-acre Balsamo property on Northlake Boulevard next to the future 3,250-home Avenir development and approved the construction of 97 single-family homes on the Balsamo parcel. Balsamo has since sold his property to PulteGroup for $12 million.

Carleton Oaks and Osprey Isles, existing communities just east of the Balsamo property, voted to join the city in March. Three more communities — Bay Hill Estates, the Preserve at Bay Hill Estates and Rustic Lakes — are set to vote to annex into Palm Beach Gardens this March.

Homes are selling in Alton, the new Kolter development between Hood and Donald Ross Roads west of Central Boulevard. There are 360 houses, including 143 townhouses, in the first phase of development. Another 515 homes and an Alton Town Center with stores, restaurants and outdoor gathering space are planned.

The 225,000-square-foot United Technologies Center for Intelligent Buildings off Donald Ross Road and Interstate 95 is almost finished.

3 STORIES TO LOOK FOR IN 2018

1. TERM LIMITS TESTED: Voters will decide March 13 whether City Council members should be allowed to serve three consecutive, three-year terms instead of two. They will also be asked if City Council members who are forced from office by term limits should be allowed to run again after sitting out for three years.

Voters put term limits in the city charter, which is essentially the city’s constitution, in November 2014. A court has ruled that those who were in office when term limits were enacted cannot run again, a ruling that could be overturned in the election.

2. GUNS AT THE GARDENS MALL?: Another fight is brewing over Dick’s Sporting Goods at The Gardens Mall, this time over the store’s plan to sell rifles and ammunition in the second floor space it’s subleasing from Sears. The Palm Beach Gardens police chief and other city leaders are worried, but the law leaves them powerless to stop Dick’s. No one from The Forbes Company, the mall owner, has publicly commented on Dick’s plans.

Sears won a five-year battle with the mall owners and city over a measure that could have prevented it from dividing its space. The court did not resolve whether Dick’s sale of guns creates a “dangerous hazard,” violating the terms of an agreement between the mall and Sears.

3. NOUMAN RAJA TRIAL: The former Palm Beach Gardens police officer will face trial on manslaughter and attempted murder charges in the shooting death of Corey Jones, a drummer whose car left him stranded on the off-ramp of Interstate 95 at PGA Boulevard. Raja was working a burglary detail in plainclothes on Oct. 18, 2015, when he approached Jones and then started shooting after yelling at Jones to put his hands up.

The city fired Raja, a former Atlantis police officer who was still on probation with Gardens, less than a month after the shooting. Raja was arrested in June 2016 after a grand jury ruled his actions in the shooting unjustified, and Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg’s office decided to pursue criminal charges.