Declarations of Independents

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

The state legislature passed a law last year designed to protect Loxahatchee Groves from further annexation. Appropriation of property by neighboring towns now requires the approval of a majority of landowners in Loxahatchee Groves. In addition any annexation will have to be an all-or-nothing deal. In other words: Swallow up all of Loxahatchee Groves, or as the slogan goes, "leave it alone."

But some county officials and Loxahatchee Groves residents question whether the law will stand up to legal challenges under Florida's stringent property-rights laws. With land prices spiraling upward, it is inevitable that the bill will eventually face challenges, whether through the courts or the legislature.

Hope herself is skeptical. If wealthy, absentee property owners want their land annexed, they'll find a way to do it, she says. "A lot of people who are intelligent and have been around seem to be totally naive when it comes to the political process and who can do what to whom," she adds.

The loss of land is not the only pressure facing Loxahatchee Groves. Development is rampant in nearby regions, some just across the border. The result is increased traffic, greater need for commercial services, and consequently, pressure to build more roads (and not of the dirt variety). Abutting Loxahatchee Groves to the east, for example, is the Madison Green housing development. When completed the project will feature 1150 houses on lots smaller than a half acre.

North and west of Loxahatchee Groves, the biggest question is what will happen to 13,000 acres of citrus groves. Last year Callery-Judge Groves, which owns about 4000 acres, requested a change in zoning that would allow the construction of a 100-acre-plus office park. Many residents fear that if one development sprouts up amid the citrus groves, others will soon follow.

"There's really no way I can see that they can stop these things from being developed," says Hope.

Changes in zoning, however, have been put on hold as the county government considers how to proceed. The county recently began developing a "sector plan" for what is known as the central western communities: Loxahatchee Groves, the citrus fields, and the Acreage, a hodgepodge of mostly one-and-one-quarter-acre lots that covers much of the area. Over the next 15 years, the region's population is expected to balloon from 32,538 to almost 52,000, most of whom will be Acreage residents. The county commission recently selected a consulting firm to lead the planning effort, which will cover everything from road building to commercial development to water supply.

County commissioner Tony Masilotti, whose campaign slogan in the central western communities was "Keep it country," believes it will be difficult to forge a consensus among the various interest groups. "If it was sliced bread, some people will want it sliced thinner, some people will want it sliced thicker," he says of the planning process. Masilotti adds that he's committed to preserving Loxahatchee Groves as a rural area. "They choose not to have a bunch of 7Elevens out there," he says of the residents. "They don't want to look at 7Elevens. They want to look at trees."

Rita Miller favors the sector-planning effort because it ensures that attempts to dramatically alter the area will have to grind through the gears of government bureaucracy. "Everything will have to be chewed over until it's mush," she says.

In Hope's estimation, though, it may be too late to save Loxahatchee Groves. She says the slogan "Love it and leave it alone" is no longer an apt rallying cry for the area. "I would like it to be," she laments, "but I'm afraid to say it's probably not appropriate."

Also endangered is a sense of community, which is rare in South Florida, where many neighborhoods are either brand-new or inhabited by a transient population. Six years ago, when Hope broke her hip and was hospitalized, a county nurse visited her disheveled house and determined that Hope could no longer care for herself. "They wanted to say I was incompetent," she recalls, spitting out the word with distaste.

When word spread through Loxahatchee Groves that the state was planning to institutionalize Hope, her neighbors mobilized. In one weekend -- and without Hope's knowledge -- they basically rebuilt her house, installing a new stove and toilet, refinishing the countertops, and painting the walls. Before the work was done, "the kitchen was a real crime," Hope concedes.

She now has no plan to leave -- ever. "Not on my feet, I'm not," she says. "My preference would be, literally, to die here."

In the early '80s, Hope wrote a newspaper article about fellow Loxahatchee Groves resident Steve Sipek, a onetime B-movie Tarzan who has lived in the area for 30 years. In 1969 and 1970, Sipek (or Hawkes, as he prefers, his stage name) played Tarzan in two films.

Ride around Loxahatchee Groves long enough and undoubtedly you'll pinpoint the piece of property that belongs to Hawkes: It's the only one marked by four-foot-high lion busts and a sign on the metal gate that reads, "No Trespassing. Violators Will Be Eaten!"

Hawkes isn't joking. On the five-acre property, he keeps nine large cats -- lions, tigers, panthers, and a black leopard. If you want to see exotic cats, you could visit "Tiger Falls," the Palm Beach Zoo at Dreher Park's brand-new, 20,000-square-foot exhibit, complete with 20 types of bamboo and a swimming pool. Or you could visit Hawkes and, as you wait for him to open the electronic gate, look around nervously each time the wind blows, hoping it isn't an 800-pound tiger planning to choose you as its next toy.

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