One of the country’s largest home builders and a local landowner have agreed to pay the board of a rural Palm Beach Gardens community $650,000 to withdraw its opposition to a plan to build 111 townhomes on Northlake Boulevard.
The money would be paid only if the rezoning passes. The Palm Beach Gardens City Council is scheduled to take up the matter Aug. 3.
But not everyone in the community of Rustic Lakes supports the deal, and many residents who still oppose the development said they had no say in their board’s decision.
“You’re trying to stack up little boxes, 111 of them, in front of a community of only 62 homes. It doesn’t fit,” resident Vanessa Saridakis said. “The majority of this community — I’m trying to find the right words — is dead set against it.”
Rustic Lakes, a community of 5- and 10-acre homesites, has officially backed off its initial opposition to Texas-based D.R. Horton’s plan after a year of negotiations that included concessions by the developer and the promise of cash.
To memorialize the deal, Rustic Lakes, D.R. Horton and the property owner, Northlake 20, filed a memo in county court records in March describing in broad terms each parties’ obligations under an undisclosed “Cooperation Agreement.”
The two-page memo did not specify the financial terms, except to say that the developers would be responsible for the “payment of funds to Rustic Lakes for mitigation of impacts, prohibited construction access and activities and in consideration for Rustic Lakes supporting the receipt (of) development approvals sought by (D.R.Horton) and Northlake 20 from the city.”
The $650,000 amount was confirmed in the March 14 minutes of the Rustic Lakes Property Owners Association.
“In return for Rustic Lakes publicly supporting the development, if zoning approval (is) achieved, total amount of funds will be $650K,” the minutes said. “If there is no zoning approval, then no funds are due.”
The money will be used to redesign the entrance gate, the minutes said.
“The board negotiated the best agreement they could,” one resident told the board, according to the minutes. While he didn’t want townhomes, “getting money out of the developer would be the best course of action for Rustic Lakes.”
The proposal passed 6-1.
Money depends on land sale
While Northlake 20 is the landowner, D.R. Horton is leading the effort to rezone the property to allow residential development. Support from the nearest, most impacted community is critical to City Council support.
If it passes, Northlake 20 would sell the land to D.R. Horton. The minutes say the money would be held in escrow until the land deal closes. It is not clear from the records if D.R. Horton or Northlake 20 is putting up the money.
Northlake 20 paid $1 million for the 18-acre site in 2004. The company is owned by Aldo and Josephine Basile, who live next door in Bay Hill Estates.
The lawyer for D.R. Horton, Brian Seymour, and the Basiles did not respond to requests for comment, nor did two top Rustic Lakes POA board members.
The D.R. Horton proposal to rezone the vacant land for 111 townhomes in 20, two-story buildings called Vintage Oaks received the 7-0 endorsement of the Palm Beach Gardens Planning, Zoning and Appeals Board on July 11.
Rustic Lakes is a gated community with 62 homes across an area 1 mile long and a half-mile wide. It is wedged between the Ibis Golf and Country Club on the east and Bay Hill Estates. The Northlake 20 land is on its northern perimeter and immediately abuts Rustic Lakes homesites.
Palm Beach Gardens annexed Rustic Lakes in 2018 along with Bay Hill Estates and the Preserve at Bay Hill Estates.
Residents from all three communities told the planning board they objected to the residential zoning of the Northlake 20 property, which received county approval in 2010 for a medical office building on half the site. The rest of the site remained zoned for rural residential.
‘I literally walked away from the board’
At the planning meeting, no Rustic Lakes POA board members spoke. But the developer showed planning board members a letter of support from the Rustic Lakes board.
Former Rustic Lakes board member John Lane told the planning board he quit over the board’s decision to support the townhomes.
“I literally walked away from the board the day the six members out of the seven of us decided to vote in favor of the cooperative agreement that was signed between three parties,” he said.
“In other words they gave us the money and we’ll cooperate in not objecting to the rezoning.I did not agree with this decision primarily because these six board members refused, key word ‘refused,’ to allow a vote via ballots of the members of the community,” Lane told the planning board.
Resident Catherine Bartels, who worked with a former Rustic Lakes board president to collect petitions to fight the project on a website called End High Density, told the planning board her POA’s support came as a surprise.
“I know that Rustic Lakes agreed, a select few of the board members agreed, with D.R. Horton after there was a monetary payoff amount,” she told the planning board.
Three owners and a border dispute
Three Rustic Lakes property owners who own 20 acres immediately south of the proposed development backed the project. One of the three landowners lives in Rustic Lakes. The other two own vacant property and live elsewhere.
All three are in litigation over a boundary dispute with Northlake 20.
But their lawyer, Bart Ostrzenski, made no mention of the litigation when he addressed the planning board.
“The individuals most directly impacted support this project,” Ostrzenski said.
A hint at an unspoken reason for the landowners’ support came in D.R. Horton’s submission to the city. In it, land agent WGI referenced a September 2022 exchange with the Rustic Lakes POA in which the developers promised to convey “disputed land to abutting property owners.”
The March 14 minutes said the developers wanted to give the disputed strip to the property owners association but the POA refused.
Concessions and collaboration
After describing concessions D.R. Horton made to satisfy Rustic Lakes, D.R. Horton’s attorney, Seymour, referenced the letters from the three property owners.
“And because of that we did receive a number of letters of support, including the three immediately adjacent landowners,” Seymour said.
“And then the Rustic Lakes POA itself also wrote a letter that mentioned they were appreciative of the work we were able to do with them,” Seymour told the planning board. “And we were certainly also appreciative of them working with us.”
Among the DR Horton concessions cited by Seymour:
- Lowering the number of townhomes from 186 to 148 to 111.
- Agreeing to allow no access along Rustic Lakes’ entry road, 112th Terrace North. All traffic will enter the townhome development from Northlake Boulevard.
- Assuring that the rear of the townhomes do not face Rustic Lakes.
- Adding a 6-foot wall atop a 2-foot berm on the south border.
- Lighting modifications to assure no spillage into the rural community.
- Guaranteeing no stormwater runoff into Rustic Lakes.
He continued in praise of the Rustic Lakes board’s commitment to collaboration.
“I’ve been doing this a long time and there are people that come in and say ‘We just don’t want it.’ And ‘You should keep your property vacant,’ and ‘We shouldn’t do this,’ and ‘We don’t like it,” Seymour said.
“And these folks said, ‘We have real problems and here’s the problems.’ And it took a long time. But we worked through and tried to find a way. And came up with a lot of solutions with the support of all of us working collaboratively.”
Developer documented negotiations
Seymour didn’t mention the $650,000.
But it came up in the builder’s justification statement.
To show that the builder had worked diligently to win Rustic Lakes’ support, WGI included a spreadsheet documenting email exchanges and meetings between January and September 2022. Emails between the private parties are not part of the public record unless shared with city staff.
But the two-page spreadsheet offered insight.
In August 2022, the notes reflect that Rustic Lakes’ lawyer Scott Lee sent a “demand for initial fee, plus easements or conveyance of certain land to the POA.”
Later that month, D.R. Horton attorney Michael Napoleone sent Lee a counteroffer “noting that (the) offer is strictly monetary at this point based on comments from Rustic Lakes.”
Rustic Lakes responded that Northlake 20 owed them a previously due amount, which residents said is $130,000 remaining from a $200,000 promise made a decade earlier. It stemmed from an agreement struck in 2009 before the county approved medical office buildings on half the site.
The developers countered that “no promise was made.”
In the March 14 minutes, then-board President Renee Stephano said the board could not collect the money because the statute of limitations ran out.
Lee, in an interview Thursday, said he could not comment on the terms of the agreement, adding that “the property owners association has resolved the issues with D.R. Horton and the current parcel owner to the board’s satisfaction and supports the project as proposed.”
He said members of the association were “kept in the loop in relationship to all the goings on regarding the negotiations.”
On Sept. 14, the notes say, Rustic Lakes took a “final position, including demand for reduced fee amount.”
Seymour’s Sept. 16 response, the last documented in the list, advised that D.R. Horton and Northlake 20 were “unable to meet reduced fee demand” and were “offering global resolution at prior fee amount plus the conveyance of disputed land to abutting property owners.”
The memo memorializing the “Cooperation Agreement” was filed in the public court records on March 30, a day after the developer met with residents of some of the neighboring communities.
It spelled out Rustic Lakes’ obligations, saying they “related to supporting and cooperating with (D.R. Horton and Northlake 20) in its development approvals before the city of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and expressing support to certain enumerated neighboring communities more particularly set forth in the Cooperation Agreement.”
© 2023 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.