The battle over the incorporation of Palm Beach County’s newest city, Westlake, has returned to where it started four years ago: Tallahassee.
A lawyer for the Seminole Improvement District, which was converted into the city of Westlake on Monday with the backing of five voters, told Gov. Rick Scott the city’s incorporation was entirely legal.
In a letter sent Friday, Terry E. Lewis disputed points made by Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, whose district includes Westlake. The day before, she had asked Scott to investigate the city’s founding, arguing that it violated the intent of a 2012 law that made it easier for special districts to incorporate.
“The Commissioner’s letter appears to acknowledge that the statutory process was complied with,” Lewis wrote. “Her concern is with the substance of the existing law.”
Lewis’ letter was sent to The Palm Beach Post by a public relations firm working with Minto Communities, which plans to build 4,500 homes and develop 2.2 million square feet of non-residential space in Westlake. Minto’s vice president, John Carter, has said his firm supports incorporation in part because of difficulty in working with the county, an assertion county staff members refute.
Incorporation could allow Minto to expand its project, which was approved by county commissioners two years ago over the objection of Acreage and Loxahatchee-area residents who complained it will bring traffic and sprawl.
Now, some of those same residents are furious that only a handful of people have created a city.
McKinlay blasted incorporation and blamed Minto.
“Minto’s actions are nothing short of greed in my opinion,” she said during a commission meeting Tuesday.
The Indian Trail Improvement District, which manages parks, roads and drainage for residents of The Acreage, joined McKinlay’s call for a state investigation of Westlake’s incorporation.
Indian Trail Board Member Michelle Damone was strongly critical of Westlake’s incorporation.
“It was the shadiest act a community can pursue,” Damone said. “It was supposed to be the birth of something good and honorable. I don’t respect it.”
Damone said some residents served by the Indian Trail Improvement District are looking into the possibility of forming their own city, lest they be annexed by nearby Westlake in the future.
Like McKinlay, Damone questioned whether the vote to convert the Seminole Improvement District into the city of Westlake was legal. Each of the five voters who backed conversion is listed in elections records as sharing a single address — 4001 Seminole Pratt Whitney Road — a set of Seminole Improvement District offices owned by Minto.
SID Manager Ken Cassel said no one lives in the offices.
Lewis’ letter indicates there are other residences on the property.
“There have long been residences on this property, well before Minto acquired it,” he wrote. “The residences are located within the agricultural property and typically behind fences and for that reason and ease of mail delivery all use the same mailing address, the address of the Seminole Improvement District, for collection of their mail.”
In her letter to Scott, McKinlay suggested “renters were brought in by the property owner to fulfill this ‘voter’ requirement,” but Lewis said that is “incorrect.”
The Post has been unable to reach any of those who voted for conversion. One of those voters, Anthony Fritz, is in jail on a battery charge. He had agreed to serve as a transitional council member but resigned on Tuesday.
Only the new city’s mayor, Roger Manning of unincorporated Lake Worth, has spoken publicly about Westlake’s founding.
Manning said he agreed to serve as mayor at Carter’s request. The two men are board members of the Central Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce.
Much of Westlake’s founding has been cloaked, and Minto has stopped responding to questions about it.
Lewis’ letter, however, does shed some light on the process used to create Westlake.
He said Seminole Improvement District voters petitioned the SID board “to initiate the conversion process.”
“As required by law, the petitions were forwarded by SID to the Supervisor of Elections who certified that the requisite number of voters had petitioned,” Lewis wrote. “The conversion process was followed carefully and after adoption of a municipal conversion and incorporation plan the electors of the District unanimously endorsed the plan in a referendum election held for that purpose.”
Westlake’s charter requires only that two transitional council members live in Palm Beach County. Lewis said the five who agreed to serve in that capacity are all residents of the county.
He also said Minto briefed McKinlay on the conversion process. But the commissioner said the meeting wasn’t an invitation to participate in or affect the process.
“My April meeting took place at the same time they announced they were doing this,” McKinlay said. “There was no advance discussion. I made no bones about being upset with their decision.”
McKinlay said she still has concerns about the legality of the initial vote in favor of conversion.
“I stand firm that the governor needs to investigate this issue,” she said. “The process was not instituted to be abused.”