The part of Okeechobee Boulevard that runs through Loxahatchee Groves is unlike any other piece of the east-west road. It’s a 3.5-mile stretch fronted with churches, agricultural businesses, the occasional home and lots of towering pine trees.
And it’s a stretch the character of which the town hopes to preserve — with a measure that may frustrate motorists passing through.
Town officials say they plan to drop the speed limit along the road from its current 45 mph to 30 mph, effective Feb. 15in part to maintain that rural feel. Signs will be posted this week along the road warning residents that the change is coming.
“We pride ourselves in being a rural community,” said Bill Underwood, Loxahatchee Groves town manager. “Speed is not one of those items that may coexist in a rural community where you have tractors, and you’ve got trailers, and you’ve got trucks. You’ve got a lot of items you don’t find in an urban setting.”
“We would like to maintain our rural character as much as possible,” he added.
But maintaining that character has been a challenge, as the area surrounding Loxahatchee Groves becomes more and more urban in nature. Underwood noted that just west of Loxahatchee Groves, Seminole Pratt Whitney Road has seen a number of changes in the past several years. And it’s slated for more, as Palm Beach County’s newest city, Westlake, rises from former orange groves just north of the town.
“It seems like there’s a lot of that stuff along the road there as well, which more mirrors Okeechobee — not in town here, but elsewhere,” Underwood said.
The town recently asserted its responsibility for traffic control along the road, said Palm Beach County engineer George Webb. That means Loxahatchee Groves now is in charge of signs, pavement striping, and installing and maintaining traffic signals.
That decision has had an effect on how the county and the town interact.
Webb said Palm Beach County engineers had done a study and found that a traffic signal “was currently warranted” at the intersection of Folsom Road and Okeechobee Boulevard. Now, the town would be responsible for installing the signal.
“We were in the process of starting the design,” Webb said.
He cautioned the town that by turning down a maintenance contract with the county — something about 15 other Palm Beach County municipalities take part in — they were “on the hook.”
“Their council decided that they did not want to head into one of those agreements,” Webb said. “Being able to establish and set the speed limit through there is that important to them.”
To lower the speed limit to 30 mph, the town declared the area along Okeechobee Boulevard a “residence district,” which according to Florida statute means there are residences and businesses in the area. Loxahatchee Groves officials are in the process of amending their comprehensive plan to reflect that any businesses looking to open in town will be directed to Southern Boulevard.
The town also recently slowed the speed limit on Folsom to 30 mph from 40 mph. Webb said the county did a survey of drivers before and after the change — and found little difference in behavior.
“The drivers dropped their speeds down from 47 to 45 (mph),” he said. “Drivers drive what they feel comfortable.”
The signs posted this week along Okeechobee are part of “an educational period” the town and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office will roll out, Underwood said.
“It’s not meant as a deterrent,” he added. “It’s meant as, ‘OK folks, we’ve gotta slow down.’ “
Marcela Brussens, who lives in Loxahatchee and takes Okeechobee Boulevard each day to work, said a lower speed limit will be worse for commuters.
“I think everybody will be pretty upset,” she added.
At Caribbean Plants and Produce on the northwest corner of Okeechobee Boulevard and F Road, manager Kate McDonald said the change is overdue. With lots of pedestrians in the area and lots of vehicle traffic, she thinks it’s a great idea.
“People want to drive fast and they don’t want to slow down,” McDonald said, adding that there are several bus stops in the area. “It’ll be better for safety.”
But McDonald also thinks vehicles that are traveling slower might be more likely to stop in to see what her business has to offer.
“People go by so fast that they barely see us,” she said.