Why a rural community is split over decision to join Gardens


Palm Beach Gardens has a higher property tax rate, but it does not levy a fire rescue tax.

Rustic Lakes residents are worried about losing their rural lifestyle and their debtor’s protection.

Palm Beach Gardens’ plan to annex 500 homes has created a rift among neighbors in a small, rural community where residents look out for one another and take turns hosting potlucks in each other’s barns.

Signs of the discord at Rustic Lakes: The community’s first annexation committee was disbanded and replaced for reasons that are in dispute. An opponent suspects someone in favor of annexation removed fact sheets from a common mailbox. One supporter didn’t want to be seen with a reporter in the 60-home subdivision because of the friction.

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

Some residents oppose the plan because they worry they’ll pay higher taxes and lose an obscure protection against creditors. They doubt assurances from the city that they’ll be able to keep their idyllic lifestyle, which often includes goats, horses and alpacas that graze on large lots and where many residents openly store boats and RVs.

RELATED: From farm animals to family, new Gardens development has long history

Supporters say increased police response times, discounts on recreation services for both children and adults and access to the city’s new golf clubhouse across the street make annexation a worthy proposal.

Some will lose money in the deal. Others will save. That all depends on how much their house is worth, how much they spend on recreation fees for youth sports teams and summer camps and how much their monthly cellphone bills are, among other factors.

Residents of two larger, more suburban enclaves — Bay Hill Estates and The Preserve at Bay Hill Estates — will vote March 13 on annexation, along with Rustic Lakes. With 264 homes in Bay Hill Estates and 194 in The Preserve at Bay Hill Estates, the 60 Rustic Lakes homeowners could be outnumbered by their neighbors.

Barbara McElvy has lived in Rustic Lakes for 35 years with her significant other, Louis Oxnevad, and enjoys watching the ducks and geese gather on their 5-acre property. Sandhill cranes follow Oxnevad around the yard, she said.

“It’s been peaceful, really,” McElvy said. “What can they offer that we don’t already have?” she asked of the city.

Bay Hill representatives worked with Palm Beach Gardens Finance Administrator Allan Owens to develop a tax calculator in Microsoft Excel so that people could enter the assessed value of their homes and their utility bills to determine how annexation would affect them, Bay Hill annexation committee Chairman Reg Miller said. They shared the calculator with the other two communities, he said.

The outcome: People whose homes have a taxable value of about $330,000 or less will save money, and those with higher-valued homes will pay more.

Residents of all three communities pay the county property tax rate of $4.78 per $1,000 of taxable property value, plus the $3.46 per $1,000 county fire rescue tax. If they approve annexation, the county fire rescue tax will come off their bills, but the Palm Beach Gardens tax rate of $5.55 per $1,000 of taxable value will be tacked on top of the $4.78 county tax rate.

Jon Andio said he expects to save “a couple hundred dollars” because the city has a lower tax rate on communications than Palm Beach County, and he spends a lot on cellphone service for his small businesses.

Discounted recreation fees for residents also are appealing to the father of two children, ages 10 and 14, who play in the city’s sports programs.

“I have young kids, so for us to go into Palm Beach Gardens, it’s advantageous,” Andio said.

The county charges a 5.7 percent communications tax on cellphone, internet, cable TV and land-line phone service, more than the city’s 3.5 percent, Owens said. City residents do not have to pay a $170 solid-waste collection fee, nor do they pay a 10 percent tax on electricity usage, he said.

Bill Stone, a member of the Rustic Lakes Property Owners Association board, pointed to an arcane matter of law that could prove costly for the residents of the country-style homes on large lots. If residents get sued or end up in foreclosure, they effectively will lose a constitutional protection on creditors seizing their property.

For unincorporated property, 160 acres is protected. In a municipality such as Palm Beach Gardens, only a half-acre is protected. The homes in Rustic Lakes typically sit on lots of 5 acres or larger, and some homeowners own more than one parcel.

It’s an issue that has galvanized opponents.

“That, in itself, is enough reason for us to say ‘Oh, heck no. We don’t want any part of it,’” Stone said.

Plus, his taxes are going up, he said. He crunched the numbers and expects his bill will increase by nearly $1,000 in the first year.

Palm Beach Gardens anticipates it will gain $1.3 million in tax revenue if the annexation is approved.

The 1,371 acre-swath is across Northlake Boulevard from Osprey Isles and Carleton Oaks, two communities that agreed to join the city in March. It is also across from one of the city’s largest and most controversial annexations, the 4,760-acre Vavrus Ranch, future home of the 3,250-home Avenir development.

The annexation area is west of Ibis Golf and Country Club, which is in West Palm Beach.

For Bay Hill, annexation means getting the benefits of city services and controlling the more suburban community’s future. Residents there don’t want to be annexed by The Acreage or any other development to the west, should it ever incorporate, said Miller, the annexation committee chairman.

“We just want to make sure we act in a preventative way,” he said.

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