Declarations of Independents

Forget strip malls, condos, and highways. Loxahatchee Groves is a place of dirt roads, wild pets, and eccentric residents.

Berke believes change is inevitable, though. And he admits that the success of his goat-cheese operation is due to the excessive infusion of people and wealth that has shaped Palm Beach County over the last 30 years. Berke may have once fled civilization, but he's now its beneficiary.

"If worse comes to worst, when D Road gets paved and 145th Street becomes a four-lane," he jokes, "I'll put up a 7Eleven over here and have my kids sell lotto tickets."

Anybody who's lived in Loxahatchee Groves for more than ten years can tell stories about encroachment. But not everybody considers it inevitable. Alongside F Road sits a sign for Le Petite Cheval horse farm. At one point Palm Beach County planned to build a road that would have crossed the property, but owner Joan Krogman and some of her neighbors successfully battled the proposal. And last year residents pressured Lion Country Safari, located a few miles west of Loxahatchee Groves, to scale back plans for a theme park and hotel that would have significantly increased noise and traffic in the area.

Ellie Hope is the opinionated matriarch of Loxahatchee Groves
Ellie Hope is the opinionated matriarch of Loxahatchee Groves
Lord of the jungle: Onetime B-movie Tarzan Steve Hawkes shares his home with lions, tigers, cougars, and a black leopard
Lord of the jungle: Onetime B-movie Tarzan Steve Hawkes shares his home with lions, tigers, cougars, and a black leopard

But for all the victories chalked up by die-hard preservationists, whose motto is "Love it and leave it alone," development continues to march on. To understand the transformation of the area over the years, you'll have to pay a visit to Ellie Hope.

At the age of 79, Hope is considered the matriarch of Loxahatchee Groves. A dedicated rabble-rouser, she has lived on the same eight-and-a-half-acre plot since 1962. Her house is not hard to find. Just east of C Road, it sits alongside busy Okeechobee Boulevard, the only paved road in the area. When she moved here with her late husband, Bob, in order to "beat hell out of the city," as she puts it, Okeechobee Boulevard did not exist. Middle Road, as it was known back then, was just a dirt path running from A Road to D Road.

Seated in a bamboo chair in her sparsely furnished living room on a weekday morning, Hope can hear the steady stream of cars and trucks roaring down Okeechobee. She's planted oak trees over the years, and slash pines and other trees crowd her property, but nothing can keep the noise out.

Hope is not "house proud." A threadbare lime-green carpet covers the floor, and the pieces of tape on the sliding-glass doors are remnants of a long-forgotten hurricane. A raccoon often shows up at the doors and puts his paws against the glass, hoping that Hope will feed him, as she regularly does. "I'm not sure they get the most rounded diet," she says. "They rely on me instead of foraging."

Time has taken its toll on Hope. She suffers from cerebral palsy and arthritis and usually walks with a cane. But she's feisty and sharp. She continues to write a column for the weekly newspaper The Forum, and her response to questions about whether she likes what's happened to Loxahatchee Groves is simple: "Hell no!"

In 1976 Hope was leader of the "Loxahatchee 11," a group of residents who blocked the construction of a culvert bridge across a canal in the northern section of Loxahatchee Groves. The bridge was to provide access to a planned golf course and housing development. In her book Loxahatchee Groves' Yesteryears, Hope writes that, after word went out that the property owner was building the bridge without approval from the Loxahatchee Groves Water Control District, residents gathered at the site. A call was then made to the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, which sent an officer to the site. The project was halted.

The next day residents removed the culvert from the canal. Hope and the others were later sued by the landowner for destruction of property, and after a marathon legal battle, they each had to pony up money to the landowner, in Hope's case $15,000. But the Loxahatchee 11 had accomplished their goal: The golfing community never materialized, and the land is now protected from development as part of the Royal Palm Beach Pines Natural Area.

Not every battle has been won. Take the annexation of the southeast corner of Loxahatchee Groves by Royal Palm Beach last year. Loxahatchee Groves is not an incorporated city, so its fate has often been determined by the whims of property owners and neighboring towns. If a landowner decides he wants his property to become part of Royal Palm Beach or Wellington and the city accedes, Loxahatchee Groves can't do much to stop it from happening.

Last year's annexation involved two parcels of land. Within a year or so, a 58,000-square-foot Albertsons supermarket and an adjoining liquor store will pop up on one property, as will a 7200-square-foot building for which a tenant has yet to be determined. On the other piece of land, which abuts Southern Boulevard, a Walgreens and Wendy's will grace the landscape.

"I'm furious," Hope says, referring to plans for both properties. "Right to the bloody end, I was against it." Rita Miller, president of the Loxahatchee Groves Landowners Association and a protégé of Hope's, adds: "It's the most horrible mishmash of commercial garbage I've ever seen."

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