They came to Palm Beach Gardens City Hall roughly 200 strong Thursday to speak against annexation.
Most left without hearing the City Council’s response.
They would have been disappointed.
The council countered neighbors’ statements, saying there was no reason for hostility or panic and the city had no hidden agenda.
Also, the annexation proposal shouldn’t come as a surprise, council members asserted, as there have been talks about annexation for decades.
About 15 minutes after the crowd departed, all five council members voted in favor of placing the annexation covering 1,300 acres east of Interstate 95 on the March 19 ballot. A second and final vote is scheduled for Dec. 6.
If it passes, the election would come at the same time as the presidential primary, meaning it is likely to be the only ballot item for voters who are not registered as Democrats or Republicans.
If a majority of the voters living in any one of five zones vote in favor, the annexation passes in that zone.
“It’s an invitation to come into the family,” Council member Carl Woods said. “If you don’t want to come into the family then don’t vote for it.”
The counterpoint, issued earlier by Charles Hollings of Pleasant Ridge: “Palm Beach Gardens is not being a good neighbor to Pleasant Ridge. You never asked us if we want to be annexed. I’m here to tell you we don’t.”
Fear of higher taxes
To concerns raised by opponents that annexation will bring higher taxes, Council member Marcie Tinsley pointed out that in many cases, taxes and fees will go down.
While a city analysis showed that owners of properties valued at less than $411,250 will pay less in taxes and fees than they do now, many residents responded to a different set of numbers.
The city estimates in its five feasibility studies that it would reap $9.4 million a year in revenues from annexing 3,542 properties while spending $6.6 million a year on services, a nearly $3 million annual gain.
The city’s net gain in revenue is simply going to other taxing bodies now, such as the county, so wouldn’t directly alter a property owner’s bottom line.
But that’s not how many residents viewed it. Working off the city’s numbers, Frenchman’s Landing resident Wallace Woodard calculated that city revenues came to more than $2,600 per property.
“I’m not interested in paying any more taxes,” he said.
Other residents feared they would be priced out of their homes and lose a laid-back, more casual lifestyle.
“Personally I feel like the vibe that Palm Beach Gardens proposes to our neighborhood … doesn’t coincide with our values,” said Sara Williamson, who lives on Ellison Wilson Road north of PGA Boulevard.
“With that, I ask you if my money is really worth it and if it benefits you enough that you feel that you should take it?” she said. “I feel passionately that I will lose.”
City promises no code crackdown
Cabana Colony resident Mike Prece worried about his neighborhood meeting Palm Beach Gardens’ code enforcement standard.
“I’m just concerned that you’re going to change our whole way of life for a little bit of tax revenue on your end,” he said. “How is my life going to benefit from any of this?”
He left before Tinsley promised that there would be no change.
“When it comes to code enforcement we are not trying to do anything different than what they already have there,” Tinsley said. “We’ve already promised that when we talked about it.”
Mayor Chelsea Reed pointed out that the number of speakers opposing annexation paled in comparison to the 8,000-plus people who would be affected. In all, 20 people spoke, with just one in favor.
The city estimates that 8,352 people live in the five annexation zones. Only those who are registered to vote would be eligible to weigh in on the annexation.
And Reed told residents that annexation talks have been going on since 1989.
“In the documents I’ve received and reviewed, we’re looking at 34 years of discussion about annexation,” she said. “This is not news. It’s interesting when people are surprised because those are some of the people that were a large part of this over the last 20 to 30 years.”
Hidden Key preparing to sue
The city’s plans may face a lawsuit, as an attorney representing Hidden Key promised that a legal challenge is coming.
Hidden Key is a sliver of 74 homes behind the Shoppes of Oakbrook plaza east of U.S. Route 1 and north of PGA Boulevard. It’s on the future annexation map of both Gardens and North Palm Beach and it holds the key to annexing the rich homes of Lost Tree Village, which is across Little Lake Worth from Hidden Key.
To counter Palm Beach Gardens’ move, North Palm Beach is pursuing a counter referendum on March 19 that includes three neighborhoods in the Gardens’ annexation plan: Hidden Key, an area west of Ellison Wilson Road south of the Ritz Carlton condos and the neighborhood south of the Waterway Cafe.
Residents of Hidden Key have asked Gardens to remove their gated community from Zone 1, the sprawling annexation zone that stretches from Cabana Colony by the Gardens Mall to east of the Intracoastal Waterway and beyond to the east side of U.S. 1. They said they were told it couldn’t be done without delaying the annexation referendum.
Hidden Key has hired Stuart lawyer Nicholas Gieseler, who said after the hearing that he planned to sue over the city’s refusal to grant him intervenor status, which would have allowed him to question speakers.
To the City Council, he argued that the size of Zone 1 does not meet the state’s definition of “compact.”
City Planning Manager Martin Fitts said the state defines compact “as a concentration of property in a single area that does not create an enclave or a pocket of unincorporated land or a finger or a serpentine pattern.”
Zone 1, Gieseler argued, is not “a single area” because as the city identified in its feasibility study, it embraces 40 communities.
“In short, we don’t feel that this annexation is proper. We think it violates Florida law and despite what happens tonight, the residents of Hidden Key don’t intend to let it happen,” Gieseler said.
Later, when Council member Dana Middleton asked City Attorney Max Lohman to expand on Fitts’ definition of compact, Lohman shot back: “We’ve already gone over the definition of compact areas and I’m not going to debate the people from the public who have offered testimony otherwise.”
Mass exodus before meeting’s end
The meeting on annexation, initiated by Palm Beach Gardens, brought a larger, more antagonistic crowd than typically attends Gardens City Council meetings.
At the meeting’s start, Reed sternly warned the crowd against applauding or speaking out of turn. After the crowd broke into applause following the first speaker, she admonished them, “If there are applause after speaking, or boos … you will be removed and you will not have the opportunity to speak. Please do not do that again.”
Fifteen speakers later, after the last public comment addressing the Zone 1 annexation around 7:50 p.m., Reed announced that the council had heard all the comments and would close the hearing. She explained that the council next would make a motion and discuss the item.
But as she spoke, some people began to leave, talking to one another and making noise as if the hearing were over. “We’re going to wait until the chamber clears,” Reed said, calling for a one-minute recess.
That prompted a mass exodus. One resident rising to leave could be heard saying the mayor had told them to clear the chambers. Hollings of Pleasant Ridge said he left for another reason entirely.
“I was getting hungry,” he said, adding, “We had had our day in court as it were. I was under no illusion that they weren’t going to pass it.”
The proof of the opposition is going to be apparent in March, Hollings predicted. “I don’t think they understand what kind of groundswell is coming.”
When the recess ended, only about 20 people remained and four people spoke concerning the remaining four zones.
© 2023 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.