The decision by Minto Communities Inc. to push through the highly controversial incorporation of the company’s Westlake development on the former Callery-Judge Grove land has Palm Beach County officials furious and local leaders angry at the legal loophole that let the incorporation happen.
Four years ago, state legislators passed — and Gov. Rick Scott signed — Senate Bill 692, which made it easier for special districts to incorporate. The legislation was created specifically to benefit Callery-Judge Grove, the predecessor to Minto as the dominant landowner in the Seminole Improvement District.
Previously, Callery-Judge had failed to get county approval for a 10,000-home development project on the 3,800-acre property. Lobbyists for Callery-Judge worked with lawmakers to include wording stripping out minimum population requirements and legislative approval needed to create a would-be city, thus giving landowners a freer hand to develop projects. The goal was to force the developer and the county to work together — and it worked. Callery-Judge sold out to Minto, and Minto used the power given it by the Tallahassee powerbrokers to get approval for a fairly sizable development of 4,500 homes and 2.2 million square feet of non-residential commercial zoning.
Why then, incorporate now? Minto officials blame the county for dragging its heels on building approvals, which county officials categorically deny. The elephant in the room is that as a municipality, Westlake can possibly rewrite the development agreement set out in lengthy detail at agonizingly long meetings in 2014.
At issue with the incorporation itself is a debate about the letter of the law versus the spirit of the law. Minto representatives have very clearly laid out their opinion that the exact letter of the law was carried out, but the spirit of the law? Clearly this scenario was not the goal of the 2012 legislation. The goal of the 2012 legislation happened with Minto West/Westlake’s 2014 development approval.
Moreover, some are questioning if the shotgun incorporation was even legal. What Minto officials have called a completely legitimate process, detractors have called an elaborate scam, with allegations of vote buying and election fraud. County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay has written Gov. Rick Scott, asking him to investigate the circumstances, joined by the Indian Trail Improvement District. McKinlay is also pushing to get the statute — a clear violation of county authority — overturned.
With just five voters, the “residents” of the Seminole Improvement District voted last month to create the City of Westlake. Among the questions McKinlay wants investigated are whether the Westlake voters actually live within the district and why all five voters appear to have the same mailing address. Further, McKinlay points out Westlake’s charter requires only two of the five transitional council members to reside in Palm Beach County. These concerns, and others, appear superficially suspect from the outside, and lead to questions of both transparency by Minto and the ability of developers to do end-arounds when it comes to the creation of such phantom municipalities.
We’re pretty sure there will be legal action taking place over this issue, which leaves us hoping that, regardless of whether the incorporation of Westlake stands, what ends up being built on the property resembles what the county and developers had initially agreed to after years of negotiation.
So, what options exist until the matter is resolved? We encourage Palm Beach County and the Indian Trail Improvement District to hold strong in the authority they do have over roads, public safety, utilities and more to make sure that the City of Westlake closely resembles the approved Minto West development.
Intentionally following the letter of the law, but not the spirit of the law, can be accomplished through exploiting technicalities, loopholes and ambiguous language. But that does not make it the right thing to do.