Earlier this month, the Palmetto Bay parks department received a letter from the state instructing them to make “minor changes” at Thalatta Park, the historic bayfront estate that the village often rents out for weddings.
Parks department director Fanny Carmona says she’ll gladly fulfill most of their requests — she intends to wrangle a little on park public-access hours — but she wants to make just one thing clear.
“We have never been not in compliance,” she says of the grant contract and management plan the state attached to the money it provided the village to purchase the park back in 2005.
The grant contract doesn't stipulate how many hours a week the park ought to be open. Carmona says that while that alone could technically get the village off the hook, what’s more important is that the village has always been up front about its hours and the weddings to the state, and it’s never been a problem before.
Because the park was purchased with $2.7 million in help from the Florida Communities Trust, Carmona submits a stewardship report each year. The state, in turn, replies with any changes or updates it needs to see. Every report for the past three years has included the park’s hours, and says that the park sometimes closes during regular hours for special events. The last report, Carmona points out, even notes the site’s “growing popularity as a wedding venue” and the revenues generated.
That’s why she was surprised, she says, to get an FCT letter on May 8 — exactly a month after receiving her annual all-clear from the same agency — telling her that weddings were all right but to stop booking any new special events during regular hours, Fridays, or Sundays.
“We are suddenly being admonished for supposed noncompliance of operational hours when no such requirements exist and open hours have been approved by the State for the last three years,” she wrote in reply on May 16.
Nevertheless, she said in a phone interview this week, “We’re grateful for FCT and for their partnership,” and the village will make changes so long as it’s understood that these are “new requests.”
The park’s hours previously scheduled 26 public-access hours a week. The village is now offering to open the park up for public use from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Sunday from May 15 until Sept. 15 for a total of 63 public-access hours a week.
For the rest of year, the village wants to keep the park closed on Fridays and Saturdays for private events, with the public welcome from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sunday, for a total of 41 public-access hours a week. It’s also agreeing not to book new events during regularly scheduled public hours. Both the state and the village are in agreement that no events already scheduled will be canceled.
In addition, the village has already added a prominently featured disclaimer on its dedicated Thalatta website noting that the park was purchased with FCT funds and that its primary use is as a public park. There have long been physical plaques at the park itself, Carmona says, but it was an oversight not to include the information on the website.
The state’s letter comes after months of agitation on the part of village resident David Singer, who called the village’s use of Thalatta Park “criminal” during its April council meeting, warning that he would “do everything in my power to make sure the village of Palmetto Bay is investigated for the misuse of Thalatta Park.”
He filed a complaint with the FCT that month, alleging that the village had violated nearly every stipulation in its grant contract to the state.
Another Thalatta activist — though mostly online — has been former Palmetto Bay mayor Eugene Flinn, who is running for his old seat in the upcoming November elections. Flinn helped organize the park’s purchase with FCT help back when he was mayor, and it was under his leadership that the council also started renovating the estate with the explicit intent of making it suitable for weddings and other private events.
He says there’s no political motivation behind his anti-Thalatta commercialization efforts and no inconsistency between his stance now and his actions as mayor.
“Obviously, part of how we were going to pay for preserving it is through the use of events,” he says, “what’s inconsistent is that public use has become ancillary to the park.”