‘We want to help:’ D.R. Horton explains $650,000 payment

While the Rustic Lakes Property Owners Association took the money, many residents remain opposed to plan for 111 townhomes on Northlake Boulevard.

Palm Beach Gardens

The lawyer for one of the nation’s largest homebuilders drew derisive laughter Thursday as he explained a $650,000 payment to a homeowner’s board at a Palm Beach Gardens City Council meeting.

Brian Seymour, attorney for D.R. Horton, said the developer had made many concessions to the Rustic Lakes Property Owners Association but in the end the association had needs that concessions just couldn’t meet.

“So, in addition … there is some monetary payment that goes to them being able to fix some of the problems that they have,” Seymour said. 

“We want to help our neighbors,” he concluded, drawing laughter from opponents who made up the bulk of a crowd of about 90 at the meeting.

Council members did not discuss the payment but praised D.R. Horton for winning the support of neighbors before voting 4-0 to approve the plan for 111 townhomes called Vintage Oaks on Northlake Boulevard west of Ibis. Member Marcie Tinsley recused herself because her husband worked on the project.

While it’s not unheard of for a developer to offer cash to win support, it’s rare enough that the act raised questions about whether the support sincerely reflected the views of homeowners. Several Rustic Lakes residents in the crowd dominated by residents wearing red to indicate their opposition told the council it did not. 

Rustic Lakes resident Catherine Bartels gave council members petitions signed by more than 1,000 opponents and expressed surprise in her board’s support for the townhomes, saying she had been told for months that they weren’t even negotiating with the builder. 

She was one of just two speakers who mentioned the $650,000 payment to the Rustic Lakes POA, first reported last week by OnGardens.org.

“The majority of Rustic Lakes residents do not agree with this development,” she said.

Site map
Red box marks the spot for D.R. Horton’s proposed 111-unit townhome project on Northlake Boulevard. (D.R. Horton proposal to Palm Beach Gardens)

Neighbors worried about traffic

Residents of neighboring communities, principally Bay Hill Estates and The Preserve at Bay Hill Estates, cited traffic and growth concerns. 

“The City Council has an opportunity to make a tough decision and say ‘no’ to a development that will contribute to the Northlake chaos in rush hour,” said Nick Moore, a resident of The Preserve at Bay Hill Estates.

Traffic calculations showed that the D.R. Horton plan, reduced to 111 townhomes from 148, would produce less traffic than the medical office buildings approved for half the site a decade ago. 

To eliminate a concern from Rustic Lakes, D.R. Horton agreed that traffic could not enter the townhome community from 112th Terrace North, the road serving Rustic Lakes. That forces all traffic to enter and exit from Northlake Boulevard.

Townhome residents seeking to go west on Northlake would be forced to first go east and make a U-turn, prompting Carlton Oaks residents to ask for a ban on U-turns across from their community. City officials told them that’s a county decision.

The entire community will be behind a 6-foot wall on a 2-foot berm and gated. The developer agreed to erect a 7.5-foot wall on a 2.5-foot berm in the back to shield Rustic Lakes. Also, the backs of townhomes will not face the rural community.

Rustic Lakes
Rustic Lakes, center, is squeezed between Ibis, Bay Hill Estates and the PGA National Estate Golf Course just south of Northlake Boulevard in Palm Beach Gardens. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

But the developer went beyond changing its plan to promise money to help Rustic Lakes make improvements to its aging drainage system, Seymour said.

Three Rustic Lakes board members after the meeting said no decision had been made on how the money would be spent. One member, Gene Wise, addressed the council on behalf of the board, saying “We are not going to stand in opposition.”

Several neighbors argued the proposal violated a policy in the city’s growth plan by escalating too rapidly from Rustic Lakes’ 62 homes on more than 300 acres to 111 homes on 18 acres. 

Planning and Zoning Director Natalie Crowley dismissed those concerns.

 “Just to be crystal clear,” she told the council, “staff has fully evaluated consistency on this proposed land use change with the entirety of the comprehensive plan. … You can’t look at one specific policy in isolation; you have to look at the totality.”

Rustic Lakes
The entrance to Rustic Lakes on 112th Terrace North in Palm Beach Gardens. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

Nearby support cloaked in mystery

Council member Carl Woods said the support of four Rustic Lakes property owners immediately south of the project helped sway him. Four owners sent the council letters of support in April. 

But the blessing of those landowners is cloaked in mystery.

In 2021 and 2022, those neighbors signed petitions opposing the development. 

One later sold to another so now only three owners control a combined 20 acres, enough land to double the size of D.R. Horton’s development. Townhomes also could be proposed for 10 vacant acres fronting Northlake to the west. 

Over the past two years, those landowners have been involved in a legal fight over ownership of a swath of land along their border with the D.R. Horton site. 

Northlake 20, the landowner that is under contract to sell the 18-site to D.R. Horton, sued one owner in February 2021 to recover the property. Northlake 20 is owned by Aldo and Josephine Basile, who live next door in Bay Hill Estates. They paid $1 million for the 18-acre site in 2004. 

This year, the other two landowners joined the legal fight against Northlake 20.

Yet all three signed letters in April supporting the townhomes.

Rustic Lakes
Land immediately south of the proposed D.R. Horton townhome community in Rustic Lakes. The owners are in a dispute over the D.R. Horton boundary. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

Documents submitted by D.R. Horton acknowledged that resolving the land dispute was part of negotiations between the developers and the Rustic Lakes’ board last year and showed that in September the developers agreed to convey the disputed land to the property owners. 

While Bart Ostrzenski, the lawyer for the three landowners, spoke in favor of the project, he would not say after the meeting if its approval means his clients will be awarded the contested land or had an agreement to sell to the developers. His clients did not attend the meeting.

Recorded memo reflects payment

Bartels, the Rustic Lakes resident, faulted the developers for keeping the $650,000 payment quiet last month when the Gardens planning board voted unanimously to support it.

“D.R. Horton only showed the signatures and last sentence of each letter of approval. What they failed to include was that Rustic Lakes was monetarily compensated in the amount of $650,000,” Bartels told the council. “In order to receive the $650,000 they said they would sign the letter of approval. The same goes for the four parcel members that also signed letters of approval. I’m not sure how they are being compensated.”

Rustic Lakes, D.R. Horton and 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 homeowners board voted 6-1 on March 14 to accept the $650,000 deal, a decision that sparked the lone dissenter, John Lane, to quit the board that day.

“In return for Rustic Lakes publicly supporting the development, if zoning approval (is) achieved, total amount of funds will be $650K,” the meeting minutes said. “If there is no zoning approval, then no funds are due.”

D.R. Horton

The money won’t go directly to board members, D.R. Horton’s attorney, Seymour, told the council.

“This is not like this went to a human being. This went to everybody in Rustic Lakes. I’m not going to talk about the money but it’s a bit of an unfair characterization to say anything more than this was about trying to solve problems.

“This was about working with the neighbors the best we could,” he said. 

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© 2023 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.

Author: Joel Engelhardt

Joel Engelhardt is an award-winning newspaper reporter and editor based in Palm Beach Gardens. He spent more than 40 years in the newspaper business, including 28 years at The Palm Beach Post. As a reporter, he covered countywide growth, the 2000 election and the birth of Cityplace in West Palm Beach. As an editor, he oversaw probes into the opioid scourge, private prisons, police-involved shootings and more. For seven years, he worked on the paper’s editorial board. Joel left The Post in December 2020. He and his wife, Donna, have lived together in Palm Beach Gardens since 1992.

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