Okeechobee Input Session Exposes Wide Divide

The Town of Loxahatchee Groves invited residents’ input during a Wednesday meeting concerning the future of Okeechobee Blvd.

As in previous such meetings, opinions varied widely, ranging from some homeowners advocating for making the road four lanes so they can safely make left turns into their properties, to giving the corridor more of a “main street” and “center-of-town” feel.

Planning consultant Jim Fleischmann said there is a wide variety of uses that can occur in the corridor, ranging from agricultural to commercial, although the current comprehensive plan calls for commercial uses to be directed toward Southern Blvd.

The town recently drew a lawsuit after it turned down a development application for the Day property at the southwest corner of Folsom Road and Okeechobee Blvd. after staff reported that the application met all standards of the town’s comp plan and Uniform Land Development Code.

Fleischman pointed out that Okeechobee is roughly at the center of town, with 56 percent of residents living north of the road and 44 percent south.

Fleischmann said the roadway is a designated urban collector highway. The county has plans to expand the 2-lane segment to 4 lanes in its long-range road map, although the improvement is not identified in the county’s five-year road plan. Current “guesstimates” put the widening at between 2020 and 2035, Fleischmann said.

The trigger for the widening is when large-scale development occurs at the Callery-Judge Grove and the GL Homes properties west of the town. “At this point that’s anyone’s guess,” Fleischmann said.

He also pointed out that traffic volumes have actually declined on Okeechobee, from 20,000 trips per day in 2006 to 14,000 in 2012. “As long as traffic volumes remain at that level, the county will probably not include Okeechobee in its traffic plan,” Fleischmann said.

Resident Nina Corning said that much of the traffic on Okeechobee went to Southern when improvements were made on that thoroughfare. She wanted to protect the town and see that it is not divided in two parts with a high-volume highway.

“I can’t see the four-lane road dividing us,” Corning said. “What I can see is more of a main street image.”

Corning suggested street calming on Okeechobee, such as cobblestone covers over the lettered roads.

Okeechobee Blvd. property owner Patricia Althouse said traffic under current conditions is unbearable. She fears making a left turn onto her property out of concern that a driver behind her will pass her on the left regardless of whether she has her turn signal on. During rush hour, traffic is backed up a half-mile on the lettered roads, she added.

In an e-mail, Okeechobee Blvd. property owners Jerry and Pat Hastings said they have owned their 5-acre parcel for 30 years and watched the area grow. They questioned the reasoning of putting commercial only on Southern Blvd. “Why not put it at the center [of town]?” they wrote. “You could help make it a town that works for the people in this town.”

Acts 2 Worship Center Pastor Calvin Lyerla wrote that he favored widening Okeechobee Blvd. to four lanes with a center left-turn lane, and to allow more light commercial uses along the corridor. He added that he thought property values are being kept depressed due to the lack of movement on zoning issues.

Land planner Kerry Kilday, agent for property owner Bill Day, said they had made application for commercial land use on the property and had been told by staff it was consistent. “His position continues to be that it’s in an area appropriate for commercial use,” Kilday said.

Kilday added that many Loxahatchee residents seem to have an “all or nothing” point of view and pointed out that there are probably appropriate places for different types of uses.

“There is already a mix, and some of those will be there a long time,” Kilday said, adding that he felt the town should get beyond the issue of use and focus more on design for the corridor. “Okeechobee is an opportunity. Right now, it is an ugly road with bad edges on it. I heard two people say ‘main street.’ Start with the core and grow out from the core.”

Kilday urged that a design workshop be conducted to develop concepts for the corridor. He added that he felt focusing commercial on Southern Blvd. is a bad idea. “Commercial there is what I call highway commercial,” he said. “It will be an income stream, but not the center of town. Love it or hate it, Red Barn offers a lot of services, and is in the center of town.”

Resident Virginia Standish said she thought the county is pro-development and the residents have to protect their town. “A town center is a fantastic concept,” Standish said, adding that she favored an idea that had been suggested to locate a town hall on Okeechobee.

Former Councilman Dennis Lipp said he had moved to Loxahatchee Groves in 1977 when Okeechobee was then referred to familiarly as “Middle Road.”

He clarified, however, that the original intent for commercial on Southern Blvd. was to develop Tangerine Blvd. to the north of the lots on Southern Blvd. as the main commercial access point for residents. “Okeechobee has been a problem,” Lipp said. “This is the third or fourth workshop. The solutions never get simpler, and now we are faced with a lawsuit.”

Lipp said he would like to pay $20,000 or $30,000 for a planner, not a developer, to research and provide recommendations for Okeechobee Blvd.

Resident Howard Voren said finding solutions has been tough, with factions fighting against one another. “It’s all hot-button issues, reacting to issues without having the facts,” he said, adding that when Southern Blvd. is widened, it will severely restrict access from the town. “I see D Road as a quasi-main street. They are going to take away that access.”

Voren asked town staff whether they could come back with suggestions or ideas that people could look at and say what they prefer, since what had been provided so far was much too general.

“What we have now is not anything I can feel good about,” Voren said. “Instead of being given broad concepts, give us some basics.”

Town Manager Mark Kutney said the workshop was to be the first of two public input meetings, the next of which will be in February or March to take comments on the future of the Southern Blvd. corridor.