Gardens moves to annex 500 homes west of Ibis; will residents say yes?

Dec 22, 2017
The front entrance to Bay Hill Estates. (Richard Graulich/The Palm Beach Post)

Residents of more than 500 homes on the western edge of Palm Beach Gardens are grappling with whether they want to pay more in taxes in exchange for the promise of better emergency services and recreation perks.

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The decision on whether to join the city or remain in an unincorporated pocket of Palm Beach County pits the rural community of Rustic Lakes against the suburban enclaves of The Preserve at Bay Hill Estates and Bay Hill Estates, which sits on Northlake Boulevard west of Ibis Golf & Country Club.

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Voters from the three communities will cast their ballots March 13. By adding the homes to the city tax rolls, Palm Beach Gardens stands to gain $1.3 million in tax revenue.

The proposed annexation area south of Northlake would add 1,371 acres to the city. It’s across from Osprey Isles and Carleton Oaks, two communities that agreed to join Palm Beach Gardens in March. That 284-acre annexation included the Star of David Cemetery, a county-owned preserve and a West Palm Beach fire station.

The area up for annexation is across Northlake from one of the city’s largest and most controversial annexations, the 4,760-acre former Vavrus Ranch, future home of the 3,250-home Avenir development.

Also north of Northlake, the city took in Ancient Tree, 97 homes on as many acres. Owner Sal Balsamo sought the annexation before he sold his land to PulteGroup for $12 million earlier this year.

Some homeowners in rural Rustic Lakes want no part of the city, while many in the suburban communities want city benefits and protection from being swallowed by The Acreage, if it should ever incorporate.

The 60-some houses in Rustic Lakes typically sit on lots of 5 acres or larger. Residents rely on septic systems and pitched in the money to build their own paved roads, said Bob Kline, Rustic Lakes Homeowners Association president.

“We got horses. We got cows. We got goats,” he said. “Our taxes would definitely go up.”

It’s distinct from the lavish communities with finely manicured landscaping that make up Palm Beach Gardens. The city has regulations on animals that Kline doesn’t like, he said, although he has only one dog.

Rustic Lakes residents could keep their livestock, Palm Beach Gardens officials said. So will anyone who buys a home there in the future.

Kline doesn’t buy it. The association hired a lawyer to get the facts, he said.

By annexing, residents will get better protection and faster police response times, Gardens officials say. The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and West Palm Beach and Palm Beach County Fire Rescue service the area now.

Residents immediately will see an increase in patrols, Palm Beach Gardens Police Chief Stephen Stepp said.

“You’re going to see officers out there. They’re friendly. They’re highly trained,” Stepp said at an October town hall meeting.

Fire Chief Keith Bryer told residents that annexation could speed up the construction of a new fire station at Avenir, which is planned in the next five years depending on how quickly the residential and commercial development is built.

The owner of a home assessed at $400,000 after the homestead exemption will pay about $300 more in taxes and fees if the communities join Palm Beach Gardens, city Finance Administrator Allan Owens said.

If the annexation is approved, it wouldn’t show up on tax bills until November 2018.

Bay Hill representatives approached Palm Beach Gardens about annexation a few years ago and decided it wasn’t worth the cost. But they’ve changed their minds.

“It makes sense now with the advent of everything to the north side of Northlake becoming the city of Palm Beach Gardens,” said Reg Miller, Bay Hill Estate’s annexation committee chairman. “There would have been too many hoops to jump through at that time.”

This time, people are concerned about the possibility that The Acreage could incorporate and annex them instead of Palm Beach Gardens, said Sam Santorelli, outgoing president of The Preserve at Bay Hill Estates Homeowners Association.

Residents of The Acreage, a sprawling community of 15,000 single-family homes with little commercial development, have considered becoming a city in the past. Joining with such a city does not appeal to The Preserve at Bay Hill Estates residents, Santorelli said, because home values in The Acreage are lower than in the Bay Hill communities. He’s worried that The Preserve at Bay Hill Estates, built by GL Homes in 2012, would bear the brunt of the cost of the new city.

Santorelli said he hears from people who “don’t want to pay another penny in taxes” and people who are excited about using the Palm Beach Gardens golf course and new clubhouse across the street at a residential rate.

“I said, ‘Let’s just get an informed decision,’” he said. “I just want what’s best for the community.”

With 264 homes in Bay Hill Estates and another 194 in The Preserve at Bay Hill Estates, the 60-some homeowners Rustic Lakes could be outnumbered. Only people who are registered voters at an address in the potential annexation area can vote, meaning snowbirds who vote up north won’t be eligible.