To Palm Beach Gardens leaders, it’s a natural step, squaring off the city’s western boundary by adding 300 acres of valuable property to the tax rolls.
To the residents who want to create a city in The Acreage, it is a near-death blow.
First the legislative bill to allow a referendum to create their city failed. Now they’re losing a potential commercial hub that would help pay the costs for a proposed city of 43,000 residents.
And there likely is nothing they can do about it.
The Palm Beach Gardens City Council voted 5-0 Monday to annex 301 acres spanning both sides of Northlake Boulevard near the Avenir development. A final vote is scheduled for May 4.
It’s an involuntary annexation, which means the city needed consent of half the property owners. It submitted consent forms signed by owners of 10 of the 16 parcels, covering 203 acres. Since the properties have no homes, no registered voters live there so no referendum is needed to make the annexation complete.
“This makes sense. It gives us an opportunity to square off our western boundary. It’s not in any way cherry-picking or putting anything in a serpentine manner. It’s an example of smart growth and solid land planning,” Mayor Chelsea Reed said before the vote.
That’s not how some residents of The Acreage, a semi-rural area of single-family homes on thousands of 1-acre lots, saw it. While an older, neighboring section became the village of Loxahatchee Groves in 2006, The Acreage has remained unincorporated and under the control of the Palm Beach County Commission.
Five days earlier, the Indian Trail Improvement District, an elected body that oversees drainage and road maintenance in The Acreage, passed a resolution taking aim at the Gardens’ action in defense of the new village dubbed Loxahatchee.
“Certain municipalities have indicated an interest to annex certain portions of the proposed village of Loxahatchee municipal boundaries, which would be detrimental to the overall community and would ‘cherry pick’ only commercial, or to change land use assignments that would not be in line with the rural, agricultural, equestrian lifestyle of the community,” the resolution said.
“The above-described efforts by other municipalities to expand their geographic size, impose their respective lifestyles and potential land use changes or road usage, and seek a new revenue source is counter-productive and will have a negative impact upon the landowners, natural resources and wildlife of the district,” it said.
Fearing commercial land grabs
The city’s action riled Bob Morgan, president of the Acreage Landowners Association, who has been advocating for the mostly residential Acreage to become a village for years.
“No sooner than it being discovered that our bill was dead, the city of Palm Beach Gardens came in for the first of what will be many swoops chewing away at our community from the Northeast,” Morgan wrote on his website.
The bill, HB 1113 sponsored by Rep. Rick Roth, R-West Palm Beach, called for a referendum to determine the area’s fate. The 301 acres annexed by Palm Beach Gardens were within the boundaries of the proposed new village. While the bill had the backing of the county’s bipartisan Legislative Delegation, it went nowhere in Tallahassee and supporters say it’s dead.
Morgan, who plans to try again next year, said he also fears annexation efforts by Wellington, which would reach across Southern Boulevard to annex property that the new village would need to build its tax base.
“They’re basically grabbing all the commercial property that they can,” Morgan said. “It’s just going to be a slow mess.”
Shopping center developer worried
The only person to speak at Monday’s Palm Beach Gardens hearing criticized the city’s efforts to publicize its special council meeting.
Jacob Gerb, a lawyer for the owners of the 29.5-acre DKC Coconut Crossing site, used his three minutes before the council to object to the meeting notice, alleging the city’s notification to the county and to the public violated the law.
Gerb is general counsel for Konover South of Deerfield Beach, which is on the verge of county zoning approval for a grocery store-anchored commercial center at the southwest corner of Coconut and Northlake boulevards. Konover, which is planning to begin construction this year, did not consent to the annexation.
Later, Gerb said Palm Beach Gardens had approached Konover about annexing after Konover bought the property for $14 million in December 2021 but the city had not reached out since.
Palm Beach Gardens sent a report about the annexation to the county, as required under state law, 15 days before the hearing and to neighboring property owners 10 days prior. Gerb said the county didn’t receive the letter until after the 15-day period had begun. However, county records show the email was sent at 4:46 p.m. April 6.
Gerb added after this story’s initial publication that the counting period does not begin until after the holiday (Good Friday April 7) and the weekend, meaning the county received just 14 days notice.
“We as county residents/citizens have a right to enforce this requirement, i.e. that the county staff that we its citizens rely on have an appropriate amount of time to review things,” he wrote in an email.
The city’s legal notice announcing the meeting ran in The Palm Beach Post on April 16. But the city did not publish the agenda on its website until the day of the meeting. A notice of the meeting was posted outside the doors to City Hall.
“It all just has the appearance that this is a major emergency or it’s being done in a deliberate manner that appears to suppress the involvement of the public,” Gerb said in an interview.
City sees no increase in services
Since almost all of the land is vacant, the city didn’t anticipate any immediate spending increases to service the new properties.
“This is because the annexation will not adversely affect established Levels of Service for parks and recreation, police and fire protection and code enforcement,” city planners wrote. “The additional costs to the city of Palm Beach Gardens will be for increased mosquito spraying, additional refuse collection and general government services.”
The report put the boost to city property tax collections at $68,971 a year. If the properties develop, the value to the city’s tax base would rise.
The city’s “Potential Future Annexation” map, presented in the study, shows 50 acres of the 301 acres as having the potential to be annexed. The city is adjacent to much of the annexed area by virtue of its 1991 annexation of the Vavrus Ranch, now called Avenir.
Palm Beach County concerns
The county, which owns 24 acres, also did not consent but it did not object to the amount of notice it received.
In a letter delivered to the city the morning of the meeting, county officials pointed out that if the city annexes Northlake Boulevard the city would be responsible for 12 streetlights to be added during a current road widening project.
“(The) county can forward the completed design to the city, in case the city wants to move forward with funding the street lights between Grapeview Boulevard and Coconut Boulevard,” the county wrote.
On the south side of Northlake, the annexation area runs for about 3 miles, from Bay Hill Estates Drive to Grapeview Boulevard. On the north side it runs for about a half-mile to Avocado Boulevard.
County officials also opposed “the timing of this annexation as an undue burden” on Coconut Crossing. The shopping center’s development order passed the county Zoning Commission on April 27 but final approval is several months away.
“The property should be entitled to remain within the county until final site plan approval,” the county wrote. “Annexation prior to final site plan approval would put the conditions at risk and may require the applicant to begin the entire development approval process again within Palm Beach Gardens.”
Prefers to be in Gardens
The largest landowner in the annexation area with four parcels covering 75 acres, Northlake Maintenance’s George Elmore, said he gave consent because he would rather his property be in Gardens than in Loxahatchee.
“I think it’s a lot more forward-looking area. Especially with what’s going on across the street,” he said, referring to the nearly 4,000-unit Avenir development. “I know Gardens is not easy to deal with but I do respect what they’ve done.”
Elmore, retired owner of paving giant Hardrives and a longtime developer, at one point owned the Coconut Crossing parcel as well.
Two other large landowners whose properties north of Northlake form a 116-acre square notch in Avenir’s 4,700 acres gave their consent. Their vacant land still has extremely limited development potential but its future now would be determined by the Gardens City Council.
The only built-up property to be annexed is owned by the Palm Beach County School District: Pierce Hammock Elementary School, 15 acres just east of Grapeview Boulevard.
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