The Palm Beach County Commission denied a developer’s request for it to invoke eminent domain to take a piece of the Westwood neighborhood’s buffer on the south side of Pioneer Road to create another entrance for a planned shopping center.
About 20 residents, mostly from the Westwood community, spoke against the proposed entrance, which was cited in a letter requesting the county’s approval from the Village of Royal Palm Beach last month.
The shopping center, to be located on the south side of Pioneer Road on the east side of State Road 7, has received a land use change from Royal Palm Beach but no site plan approval yet. The developer, Pebb Enterprises, claims that it needs the added entrance in order to align traffic with the light at the intersection of SR 7 and Pioneer Road south of Southern Blvd.
County Engineer George Webb said the developer of the commercial site, which was annexed into Royal Palm Beach, was asking the county to take a 50-foot-wide piece of the Westwood Property Owners’ Association’s buffer running along the south side of Pioneer Road and owned by the county in order to allow traffic access to the light on Pioneer Road.
Webb said that Westwood, which consists of homes primarily on 1-acre lots, is in unincorporated Palm Beach County and was platted in 1978. “It has been there for more than 30 years,” Webb said.
Over the past decade, the SR 7 corridor has experienced a tremendous growth spurt, and Westwood became almost surrounded by commercial development.
Webb said Pioneer Road serves three residential communities, Palm Beach Plantation, Westwood and Whispering Woods. “Those three communities put about 2,500 cars a day on Pioneer as it approaches State Road 7,” Webb said.
He said the commercial property currently has a bridge being built that connects it directly to SR 7, but that the entrance is too near Pioneer Road to have its own traffic light, adding that 100,000 square feet of commercial uses can be built per the village approval, although Pebb has not yet received the zoning.
“Without a connection to Pioneer, we estimate probably almost every trip to and from is going to have to make a U-turn somewhere on State Road 7,” Webb said. “If you’re coming from the north, the only way to get to that bridge is to go past it to the next intersection and make a U-turn and come back. If you’re coming from the south, it’s easy to turn in, but if you want to go back, you’ve either got to cut across four lanes of State Road 7 to get to the intersection of Pioneer and State Road 7, or you have to go north to a very congested area of State Road 7.”
He said Royal Palm Beach has had a history of trying to interconnect properties. “You can see on the west side they have a road system that gets properties down to that intersection at Pioneer Road,” Webb said. “Their concept is allowing people access to a traffic signal rather than having U-turns.”
He also pointed out that the Westwood buffer, approved in 1978, is on the opposite side of Pioneer Road, rather than the same side of the development, and the five properties on Pioneer Road are basically exposed, with the two westernmost properties most affected if the entrance were allowed to punch through the buffer.
Webb said the developer has a legal access to Pioneer Road further east, about 1,200 feet east of SR 7, that it intends to designate for a residential community it wants to build behind the commercial development. Pebb Enterprises has legal access to use that opening for whatever it desires, he said.
“We’re here today to get board direction as far as honoring the Royal Palm Beach request for Palm Beach County to move forward with eminent domain to condemn about a 50-foot strip of property from the Westwood POA,” Webb said, adding that Royal Palm Beach offered to further enhance the remaining portion of the buffer, but Westwood is adamant about keeping it the way it is.
He said the staff recommendation was to deny the request.
Pebb Enterprises agent Donaldson Hearing said the goal of the request is to get access to the intersection of Pioneer Road, which is a collector road, to get traffic to SR 7 and provide interconnectivity to both residential and commercial property.
“This is the most significant transit corridor in the western communities,” Hearing said. “The request is about public safety. We think the request is also about public policy. Wellington and Royal Palm Beach have worked very hard to achieve [interconnectivity].”
Hearing also pointed out that the development has already received the necessary land use amendment to commercial and that will occur regardless of whether the additional entrance is approved.
He added that the proposed commercial development would have interconnectivity to two other commercial developments to the south, which would also have access to the traffic light at Pioneer.
Land planner Chuck Millar, representing the Westwood POA, said the application should not be before them yet because it deals with site planning, and the developer is not yet at the site plan stage.
“We’re asking you at this point to deny the request and at best take it back through the normal course of action that every other parcel has gone through, whether it’s in the Village of Wellington, Palm Beach County or Royal Palm Beach, and go through where we talk about access, where the neighborhood can discuss the issues at a public forum with Royal Palm Beach, and not Palm Beach County,” he said.
Attorney Barry Balmuth said eminent domain is a powerful tool that should be used only for clear public purpose, which he said was not the case here. “Providing the most convenient access doesn’t serve a public purpose,” Balmuth said. “It only serves a private purpose in that it only benefits the property owner.”
Royal Palm Beach Village Manager Ray Liggins said his village had made the request for the entrance on behalf of the developer because staff believes that would be the best access for the owners as well as SR 7 motorists. “We made the request because we do think it is the safest access for everybody out in that area,” Liggins said, adding that the actual taking of the property would be for a judge to decide.
County Commissioner Jess Santamaria said the area is a disastrous traffic situation precipitated by both Wellington and Royal Palm Beach annexing property along the corridor and making backroom deals.
“The government that causes the problem, then comes and tries to solve the problem that they created by negatively impacting the community,” Santamaria said.
Commissioner Shelley Vana made a motion to deny the request.
“I believe that it is eminently reasonable to deny it,” she said. “There are U-turns everywhere, and I don’t think taking someone’s land so that we don’t have to make U-turns is a public good.”
The motion carried unanimously.
ABOVE: The Palm Beach County Commission.