‘A forever fight’: In local town, battle lines are drawn on dirt roads

Dec 16, 2017
Laura Danowski stands in front of her home on South E Road to show where her property line is and where the road is being graded on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017, in Loxahatchee Groves. (Kristina Webb / The Palm Beach Post)

Residents of this small, rural town thrive on the serenity and privacy it offers. But after recent controversy over Loxahatchee Groves’ roads, some are drawing a line in the dirt about maintenance — and how to pay for it.

Maintaining the roads has been an issue since before the town was incorporated in 2007, but previous dust-ups turned testier in the days after Hurricane Irma whipped through the area at the beginning of September. Many of the 42-plus miles of the town’s dirt roads became nearly impassable, residents complained.

“It’s horrible,” said Gena Bark, who moved to Loxahatchee Groves from Wellington in 2012. “I’ve never seen it this bad. We’re all worried about our trucks, our cars.”

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After Irma plowed its way up the state, maintenance issues were further complicated by the planned transition of upkeep responsibility from the Loxahatchee Groves Water Control District to the town, which took effect Oct. 1.

Laura Danowski has served on the Water Control District board of supervisors since 2015 and has owned a five-acre horse farm on the dirt South E Road since 2004. She said in workshops between the district and the town council, she felt the council members did not plan what they would do once they assumed control of the roads.

“We asked them, ‘What is your plan? Where are you getting your money?’” she said. “They sat there like mutes.”

Conditions were so bad on E Road that when Danowski called an ambulance for her 95-year-old mother twice following Hurricane Irma, crews told her something needed to be done about the roads.

And on Dec. 10, a pickup truck went through the soft, sandy, two-foot high berm that lines the canal along North E Road. Palm Beach County Fire Rescue was not called to respond, an agency spokesman said. The driver reportedly was not injured, but a tow truck was called to haul the vehicle from the water.

Mayor Dave Browning said he believes the driver was trying to avoid a pothole and didn’t realize how close the truck was to the edge of the road. Some drivers underestimate just how soft that canal bank is.

“In trying to avoid one, you do the other,” he said.

Bark, whose horse farm is off North E Road, said the conditions have been so bad that she is concerned the rough roads could damage her horse trailers. “I should be horse showing and I cannot,” she said. “I wouldn’t even tell someone else to drive their trailer down this road.”

Complicated history

The road system in Loxahatchee Groves was cut from the former orange grove from which the town draws its name. Most of the roads have remained dirt, while an asphalt composite known as open-graded emulsified mix, or OGEM, was used to surface some of the busier stretches. But even the OGEM needs repairs, and residents have kept road conditions a priority for years. 

“Roads have been on the agenda since incorporation,” said Town Manager Bill Underwood, whose Underwood Management Services Group contracts with the town to provide staff.

After incorporating in 2007, the town relied on the Water Control District to maintain its 42-plus miles of dirt roads. But that maintenance never went beyond grading, essentially combing the road to smooth out large holes and bumps, Underwood said.

“The dirt was moved but never replaced,” he added.

Ultimately, the town negotiated with the Water Control District to take over maintenance and it started in 2015 with 25 miles of dirt roads. Because new rock and dirt had not been added to the roads in so long, Underwood said the town had to pay contractor Bergeron Land Development about $500,000 the first few months to improve conditions.

The town was set to assume maintenance responsibility of the remaining 16-plus miles of dirt roads on Oct. 1 — just after Irma moved through.

Dust hangs over a dirt road in Loxahatchee Groves on Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017. (Kristina Webb / The Palm Beach Post) Photo: Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Irma brings debris and difficulties

Bergeron, one of the major emergency contractors in Florida, was called to fulfill its debris-removal contracts in Loxahatchee Groves and other towns including Royal Palm Beach. As the town searched for someone to maintain those 16 miles of dirt roads, it put out a request for proposal — without telling Bergeron, the company’s vice president Brian Thomason told the town council in an emergency meeting Oct. 26.

That caused friction between the sides and after the town hired another contractor — MJC Land Development, owned by a Loxahatchee Groves resident — Bergeron wanted out of its contract, effective in 90 days.

“With a bid coming out not knowing about it, the other contract being let, whether there was a procurement process or not, having a contractor go by you … dings your reputation quite a bit,” Thomason said.

The town council now is slated to vote in January on a contract with MJC to maintain all of the town’s dirt roads.

Amid the squabbling residents were dealing with significant potholes and pitting. The washboard effect typical on dirt roads was exaggerated, residents said, making larger “waves” on the dirt that made hauling horse and landscaping trailers difficult, if not impossible.

Truth and consequences about repairs

One thing nearly everyone agrees on: As new residents arrive looking for deals on agricultural land, those residents want improvements. 

And that’s fine with Underwood: “I’m willing to do it, the town council is willing to do it,” he said. “It’s just the wherewithal to do it.”

Phillis Maniglia of Saddle Trails Realty said she sees many equestrians coming to Loxahatchee Groves to build sparkling new barns with large training arenas. The land is less expensive than in Wellington, she said.

“The equestrian community has found Loxahatchee Groves as a good buy, and the roads are not helping,” she said, adding that the roads have been deteriorating “for years” with a band-aid approach.

“The water district crews were just grading, grading, grading and scraping, scraping, scraping away at the dirt,” she said.

Complicating the issue of property lines: When the roads were created, they didn’t take into account modern issues of easement, eminent domain and liability. Some people own half the street next to their homes, Danowski of the Water District said.

Danowski added that when she saw the machinery coming down her road recently, she moved a decorative stump to the edge of her property line to prevent the grader from edging further onto her property.

“I’m out here rolling logs to protect my property,” she said. “It’s insane.”

The constant scraping has left the town facing major drainage issues, a topic Underwood has raised with the town council the past two years.

The dirt roads are designed to slope away from the canals so that when it rains, the road doesn’t wash into the waterway, Browning said. But because the roads are so much lower than the private property they skirt, water pools along the edges and creates muddy holes that act like glue for tires.

“There’s no place for the water to go,” Browning said.

At its Dec. 5 meeting, the town council approved the first step of a million-dollar drainage plan that would create catch basins, Underwood said.

Barricades mark the spot along North E Road where a pickup recently went into the canal in Loxahatchee Groves. (Kristina Webb / The Palm Beach Post) Photo: Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Holding on to Old Florida

Mayor Browning and many other longtime residents do not want to replace the dirt roads — although they admit it appears inevitable.

Browning moved to Loxahatchee Groves in 1979, when, he said, “It was a badge of honor to have dirt on your car.”

As the costs mount, it poses an issue for a town that prides itself on being “government lite.”

Underwood said the town’s policy is to set aside 25 percent of its budget each year as “unassigned,” and while in a typical year that money could have been used to help with road maintenance, this year it was used to pay more than a half-million dollars for debris removal after Irma.

“If we had that $600,000, we would have spent that $600,000 on the roads,” Browning said.

The town also faced a doubling of its bill for services from the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office this year, with an increase from about $300,000 to about $600,000. All the town’s property taxes now pay for PBSO, Underwood said.

The town has had to get creative. A previously planned bond issue now will pay to pave and add drainage to some of the town’s roads, but that money isn’t expected until late next year.

There also is the hope that a bill filed by state Rep. Matt Willhite will pass the coming legislative session. That would provide just over $2 million to help the town pay the total $3.6 million cost to pave D Road and add water and sewer lines, build a guardrail and improve drainage.

The town council also made the controversial decision at its Dec. 5 meeting to begin the process of levying a special assessment on landowners so the town can keep its roads in better condition.

While some residents have resisted higher tax bills, others acknowledge even maintaining the dirt roads is costly. “It is an expensive task,” Danowski said.

Loxahatchee Groves is “an unguarded jewel,” Danowski said. She loves the privacy, and that she can have her horse farm on what long has been a relatively quiet road. Like Browning she doesn’t want her road paved, but said it will have to happen.

“I want surfaced roads with speed control,” she said. “There’s going to have to be some sort of creative compromise.”

For Browning, holding onto the dirt roads is like holding onto a way of life. “We truly believe that by keeping the roads dirt, we are avoiding a lot of the changes being seen in Palm Beach County,” he said, referring to large developments being built in unincorporated, western parts of the county.

But with maintenance costs, and controversy rising, Browning is ready for the change.

“When you’ve lived out here in Florida for a while, you’ve seen every community and almost every area change,” he said. “And the developers have a lot of money. And it seems like it’s a forever fight.”