Everything from property rights to an ancient Native American mound and the future of one of the last remaining waterfront parcels in Jupiter is at stake as the town council prepares to hear a developer’s appeal later this month.

Charles Modica, a longtime Hobe Sound resident and developer, bought the Suni Sands mobile-home park near the Jupiter Inlet for $17 million in 2013, with a goal of building a mixed-use development with condominiums, a restaurant and a hotel.

The last Suni Sands residents were evicted in 2016. But plans to develop the property that some experts consider one of the most historically and archaeologically significant sites in South Florida have yet to be approved. The developers have been turned down while seeking a first necessary step.

On Feb. 16, the town of Jupiter's Historic Resources Board denied Modica a certificate to dig on the property, which is required before development can proceed. The town council is expected to hear the developer’s appeal on July 20.

“Even if it is not a burial mound, there is history under there. There is evidence of previous lives under there," said Debi Murray, the historic board’s chair, and chief curator of the Historical Society of Palm Beach County.

"It is really part of a bigger complex that other people in the past have moved through, and this is the last bit of it. The board decided this was important enough to save.”

Murray said that if Modica wants a lasting legacy, he should save the property as a historic site.

“His name would last far longer than on a hotel,” Murray said. “It is a shame that an awful lot of it was carved into over the decades. We are trying to preserve what is left and make people aware there were people here before us.”

The property is home to two archaeological sites eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. They are the Jupiter and Lake Worth Railway, also known as the Celestial Railway, and the 4-acre Suni Sands Shell Midden, rising about 10 feet above the ground.

Archaeologists say there is evidence at the site showing there were people in the area going back 5,000 years, and that the black earth-mound midden is generally thought to be 1,500 years old. It contains artifacts from the indigenous people who lived there.

The railway operated from 1889 to 1895 and took passengers 7.5 miles to the north end of Lake Worth. Nothing remains of the railway, but its 950-foot path runs north-south across the property.

Modica, who developed the nearby Love Street complex of four restaurants and docks with NFL Hall of Famer Joe Namath, had agreed to preserve part of the Suni Sands property. He requested to excavate 1.99 acres plus use a half-acre for a road and for tennis and pickle ball courts for a total impact of 2.5 acres of the 4-acre mound.

The town staff and two archaeological consultants recommended allowing 1.29 acres of the 4 acres to be excavated. The remaining 2.78-acre area of the Suni Sands Shell Midden was recommended as a preservation area along with a 10-foot-wide buffer around it.

The staff said the State Division of Historic Resources stated that capping the mound with a road was not acceptable because of the weight and the impacts that can occur during construction.

But Jupiter’s historic board, after hearing from members of the Seminole and Miccosukee Tribes who say their ancestors are likely buried there, as well as from archaeologists, historians and area residents, concluded it is impossible to preserve the archaeological resources adequately if any of the 10 acres are developed.

Artifacts found during 289 excavation tests that the developer’s archaeologist, Bob Carr, conducted from 2014 to 2022 included 4,800 prehistoric ceramic pieces, a rare green stone hammer and an axe head, which are proof of trades to the north, as well as prehistoric skeletal or fossilized human remains, including seven human teeth and a knee cap.

Bryan Davis, a principal planner for Palm Beach County, described the property as “the essence of Jupiter, a most iconic site and as important as the Jupiter Lighthouse.”

He testified that the confluence of the Jupiter Inlet, Loxahatchee River and Indian River, along with the terminus of the Celestial Railway, shaped Jupiter’s history and was responsible for the town’s historic settlement.

Murray said that in the past, Native Americans had no say about what was happening to mounds such as this one, but now they have more political clout.

Robert Rosa of the American Indian Movement and the Florida Indigenous Alliance is among those who spoke at the hearings. He says the mound is a burial site that some want to minimize by saying it is nothing more than a “trash heap.“

“We would not go into Arlington cemetery and see what they buried the World War II heroes with. It is something you just don’t do,” Rosa said. “You let your ancestors remain. We don’t want it tampered with. We don’t want DNA pulled out of the remains.”

Josh Liller, a Historic Resources Board member who works as historian and collections manager for the Loxahatchee River Historical Society, which operates the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse, said the Suni Sands mound is one of only three left in Jupiter. The others are in Dubois Park with a pioneer home on it and in front of the lighthouse along the shoreline.

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