Declarations of Independents

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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."

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.

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Paul Demko
Contact: Paul Demko