Law passed as threat four years ago leads to creation of Westlake

Westlake, Palm Beach County’s newest city, has had its first official meeting — a brief gathering Monday night where the mayor and founding council members took the oath of office and appointed a city manager and city attorney.

The city’s leaders also discussed how to fill the vacancy of founding council member Anthony Fritz, who submitted his resignation last week from jail, where he was being held on a battery charge.

With the exception of a county commission staff member, no one from the public showed up. That could be because, other than those who agreed to serve on the council, the city has only three residents.

As Westlake ramps up — it’s still looking into setting its property tax rate and determining how it will eventually provide fire-rescue and law enforcement services — county officials and others continue to marvel and vent at the state-ordained process that allowed the vote by just five residents to create a city out of a special services district where Minto Communities was planning a development project by the name of … Westlake.

If the city is in its infancy now, the stage for its birth was set four years ago, when state legislators passed and Gov. Rick Scott signed Senate Bill 692, which made it easier for special districts to incorporate. The legislation was created to benefit Callery-Judge Grove, the predecessor to Minto as the largest landowner in the Seminole Improvement District.

In 2007, Callery-Judge had failed to get county approval for a massive, 10,000-home development project, and some — most notably Tallahassee lobbyist David Ramba and SB 692’s author, then-Sen. Michael Bennett of Bradenton — felt the landowner was being treated unfairly.

Incorporation would give the landowner a freer hand, allowing Callery-Judge to deal with a nascent city instead of a county government that it viewed as hostile to the idea of a huge development project in the area.

Ramba, who worked for Callery-Judge at the time, said, “They wanted it as a negotiating tool. For us, it was a negotiating tool. Nothing more than that.”

He wrote an amendment stripping out the minimum population requirements and legislative approval a would-be city would normally need to incorporate. He said he then got Bennett to attach it to legislation heading to the floor, bypassing the usual process of having the matter discussed during committee meetings.

Assistant County Administrator Todd Bonlarron, then the head of Palm Beach County’s legislative affairs team, noticed the move.

Ramba said he remembers an angry Bonlarron shaking a copy of the legislation in his hand.

“Is this you? Is this you?” Ramba recalled Bonlarron asking.

The county viewed the legislation as a developer-inspired usurpation of its authority to manage growth, one of many such efforts Bonlarron and his team fought in Tallahassee.

“I remember going to Sen. Bennett’s office and saying, ‘Please, don’t do this,’” Bonlarron said.

Bennett was not moved.

“Callery-Judge, in my estimation, was being treated very unfairly,” said Bennett, now supervisor of elections in Manatee County.

The legislation passed the Senate on a vote of 37-2. It passed the state House of Representatives on a vote of 104-13. Both chambers, then as now, were controlled by Republicans. Scott signed the bill into law.

Callery-Judge had its legislative hammer, but it never got to swing it.

A sharp economic downturn stymied plans to develop the property, after citrus canker had already taken a big bite out of Callery-Judge’s citrus operation. In 2013, Callery-Judge sold the 3,800-acre property to Minto Communities for $51 million.

As the economy rebounded, things were changing on the county commission, too.

Callery-Judge had paid $500,000 in 2006 for a private investigation of former County Commission Chairman Tony Masilotti, who later served a prison sentence on a corruption charge.

By 2013, Masilotti was long gone from the commission. So was Karen Marcus, a fierce opponent of development projects she viewed as harmful to the environment.

Prospects for development were much brighter when Minto formulated its plans for the area. Many residents of The Acreage and Loxahatchee Groves, however, still hated the idea of a giant development project rising in their midst.

They packed meetings in 2014 as commissioners debated Minto’s plans to construct 4,500 houses and develop 2.2 million square feet of non-residential space. Commissioners knew those plans angered some in the area, but they also knew Minto now had the same legislative hammer Callery-Judge won from Tallahassee — the easy path to incorporation that could allow them to develop with little regard for the county’s wishes.

Commissioners approved Minto’s plans.

Two years later, Minto swung that incorporation hammer, shocking commissioners and angering area residents.

Minto Vice President John Carter has said the developer was having a hard time working with the county on such things as permits, a contention that draws eye rolls and shaking heads among county staff members.

Ramba and others believe Minto backed incorporation because it gives the firm the opportunity to go beyond the development limits it agreed to with the county.

Even if Minto sticks to those limits, area residents worry traffic from Westlake will flood their area.

Loxahatchee Groves Mayor David Browning said the county, in approving Minto’s plans, got the developer to agree to pay for a traffic signal at the intersection of Okeechobee Boulevard and D Road as a condition of approval.

Now, he said he’s not sure the new Westlake City Council, led by a mayor hand-picked by Carter, will honor that agreement.

County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, whose district includes Westlake, was angered by the incorporation and has asked Scott to investigate it. The Indian Trail Improvement District, which provides services to residents of The Acreage, has joined that call.

And the actual use of the law he helped create has left Ramba bewildered.

“You would think Minto would have a little longer term vision,” he said. “They’re going to run into the county on fire, on sheriff. It isn’t going to be pretty. I think they’re creating a pretty big enemy.”

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