James LaClair, Sr. was dumbfounded.
The bar where he and his son, James LaClair, Jr., were having noontime beers was no longer part of rural, unincorporated Loxahatchee.
Within months, Minto Communities will begin transforming former agricultural land into a city of about 4,500 homes, with more than 2 million square feet of non-residential space.
“What? I knew nothing about this happening,” said LaClair.
It was as if someone has ripped open the map, booting LaClair’s familiar world of airboat-towing F-150s into a suburban Brigadoon of minivans and MINI Coopers.
“I moved out here to get away from all that mess,” said the truck driver who’s lived on the western fringes of Palm Beach County for 22 years. Only the communities ringing Lake Okeechobee are further west.
It’s not that the LaClairs live in this not quite two-week old city. Virtually no one does, unless the census counts cows. Until recently, these 3,800 acres were citrus groves, pasture land and palm tree farms divided by a grid of canals and sand roads.
On June 20, five people who said they share a mailing address at a Minto Communities office voted for incorporation and overnight, Westlake became a city.
Several of those renters became instant city commissioners, including Anthony Fritz, who resigned when The Palm Beach Post revealed his latest address to be the county jail.
The move enraged County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, whose district includes Westlake. She asked Gov. Rick Scott to investigate, saying the vote violated the intent of a 2012 law that made it easier for special taxing districts to incorporate.
She called Minto “greedy” and the incorporation “a dishonest business practice.”
Incorporation may allow Minto to add even more homes to the project.
For LaClair and his neighbors, the creation of Westlake means everything he and his neighbors moved west to avoid is on the horizon: more people, traffic, rules and regulations, paved roads.
James, Jr. sighed and put down his glass. “Time to move further north,” he said.
Interested in a tour of Palm Beach County’s 39th city?
Take Okeechobee Boulevard 17 miles west of I-95, past the Red Barn Feed Store and the homemade signs offering soursop, moringa and guanabana for sale.
Turn right on Seminole Pratt Whitney Road. Westlake spans both sides of the four-lane divided road, roughly between Sycamore Drive, near Seminole Ridge High School and 60th St. N.
It’s not much to look at, until you consider how rare undeveloped land has become in Palm Beach County, even this far west, where what was the Callery-Judge citrus grove waits for the bulldozers.
The only commercial development in the new city is the Grove Market shopping center with a defunct Winn-Dixie, Gator’s Shack, a hay and feed store, hair and nail salon and auto parts shop.
Recent changes in the area’s population are reflected at the Stop and Shop convenience store, where freshly-made tacos and burritos are on the menu, accompanied by a cup of Cuban coffee and for Loxahatchee traditionalists, a bag of boiled peanuts.
No lake in Westlake
For the time being, however, Westlake is a city without residents, a city hall, homes or even its namesake body of water.
Where is Westlake’s lake, anyway?
“There is no lake,” said a Gator’s Shack waitress, who lives nearby in Loxahatchee.
Real estate agent Cindy Eady is incredulous that the development she and her fellow residents moved west to get away from will soon be at her front door.
“All these years, the (county) commissioners have said, no urban sprawl out here and now, here it is. I don’t understand how you plunk that thing down in the middle of this rural area,” said Eady, a Loxahatchee resident for 28 years.
She sells homes on lots of one acre or more. She suspects Westlake’s homes will be on typically small developer’s lots.
“Sure, it could be good for my real estate business,” she said, “but I’m not that greedy.”
At the Napa Auto Parts store, owner Ernie Small agrees. “I sure hate to see that big change out here,” he said.
He thinks the county was hoodwinked by Minto since the creation of Westlake means the developer likely will be exempt from some county licensing and development fees.
“The county is really gonna miss that tax money,” he said.
Asked how he feels about his Loxahatchee Auto Parts becoming part of Westlake, Small drawls, “Well, we’re not changing the name to Westlake Auto Parts, that’s for sure.”
Aside from the loss of the area’s rural character, residents are worried about an increase in traffic on Seminole Pratt Whitney Road, which they say already approaches city-like gridlock during the morning rush hour.
Seminole Ridge High School student Ben Karuzas says the normal seven-minute drive from his Loxahatchee home to school can take 50 minutes.
“And I’m still late for the 7:25 bell,” he said.
Junior Brooks, who works at Tropical Hay and Feed, says his brief commute to work can take nearly an hour.
“It’s everybody trying to go east to work on just one road,” he says.
Minto has said the creation of new roads will ease traffic through Westlake.
Brooks, 23, and co-worker Joey Enriquez, 26, are hoping development brings some nightlife west.
“They don’t have anything out here,” said Enriquez. “We always have to drive out to CityPlace or downtown to go out.”
Brooks says, “I think someone needs to bring a Dunkin Donuts out here.”
The lunch crowd at Gator’s Shack isn’t so optimistic about the impact of the impending changes. They say they feel betrayed.
“I understand progress,” said Eady, the real estate agent, “but to see such a special area turned into Broward County is horrible.”