The Loxahatchee Groves Town Council on Tuesday declined an invitation by Minto to collaborate on plans for Okeechobee Blvd.
Councilmen Tom Goltzené and Ryan Liang recused themselves from voting because of financial and property interests at the former Callery-Judge Grove land, now being developed as Minto West.
Town Manager Bill Underwood said Minto had reached out to communities surrounding the Minto West project and was offering to assist with issues, including the design of Okeechobee Blvd. as a rural parkway.
“They do want to be good neighbors, at least that’s my understanding,” Underwood said.
He said the developers had agreed to pay for a traffic light planned by the town at Okeechobee and B Road.
“We asked them specifically if they would meet with county staff to work through an interlocal agreement so that we can prefund the light and get reimbursed,” Underwood said.
He also pointed out to Minto that the town is moving forward with a building moratorium on Okeechobee Blvd., and that Minto had subsequently sent a letter to Mayor Dave Browning indicating that they would like to collaborate on the roadway master plan.
“To my knowledge, they have no intent of running over the town on Okeechobee Blvd.,” Underwood said. “It’s in their best interest, from what I understood, that the town have a good Okeechobee Blvd., as an attractive gateway that not only is good for the town, but good for them in the future.”
Browning said he and Underwood had sat down with Minto representatives because of concerns about the thoroughfare.
“You all know where I stood on the Minto project,” he said. “I spoke at every meeting I attended against the project. At the same time, I wear two hats. The other one is representing the residents of Loxahatchee Groves. I have to protect the one part that impacts our community more than anything, and that’s Okeechobee Blvd.”
The town had also received a letter from the Indian Trail Improvement District asking for help with a regional plan to resolve Minto West issues.
“I love my neighbors in The Acreage, but they have a different interest than I do,” Browning said. “I believe they would do everything they could to protect 60th and Persimmon, even at the cost of Okeechobee. I have to lean the other way because Okeechobee is our lifeline.”
Although Minto had offered to help with design, Browning said he thought it was the town’s responsibility to work with the county, because it is a county road.
During public comment, attorney Ralf Brookes, who has been retained by the anti-Minto West group ALERTS (Acreage Loxahatchee Engaged Residents Taking a Stand), pointed out that the town had passed a resolution opposing the Minto West project.
He warned against allowing Okeechobee Blvd. to become a highway similar to Southern Blvd. and physically divide the town. “We don’t want to see Okeechobee bisect the town,” Brookes said. “We ask you to reject this agreement.”
He also pointed out that Minto West has the ability to attend future public workshops on the road to provide input.
Former Councilman Dr. Bill Louda said he saw the offer as being intended to get E Road/140th Street back on the thoroughfare plan.
“The county plan right now is for Okeechobee four-laned to E Road,” Louda said. “Think about that. That is a ploy to get the E Road/140th connection back.”
Finance Advisory & Audit Committee Chair Virginia Standish said that the town is capable of hiring its own engineers.
“Minto will serve Minto,” Standish said. “We would like to think that the Town of Loxahatchee Groves is competent enough to hire people who can take care of this town. There is no reason to collaborate with Minto.”
Planning & Zoning Board Member Lawrence Corning said he appreciated Browning’s statement of a difference of interest between the residents of The Acreage and of Loxahatchee Groves.
“I sit on the board of ALERTS,” he said. “I have become much more familiar with the people and issues of those in The Acreage.”
He said the objective should be to balance the interests of all. “You really have to look at things in different contexts,” Corning said. “The idea of divide and conquer is as old as it gets.”
Cotleur & Hearing’s Donaldson Hearing, representing Minto, said the offer made by himself and Minto Regional Vice President John Carter when they met with the mayor was genuine.
“We heard of the need, and we offered to volunteer our expertise,” Hearing said. “It happens to be that our firm has an extensive amount of expertise dealing with transportation planning. Our offer was to use our time and talents any way you want.”
Councilman Jim Rockett was hesitant to work with Minto developers after they had gotten what he believed was more density than should be allowed, and he thought there was plausibility to Louda’s comment about resurrecting plans for an E Road/140th connection.
“My concern when I saw this was us compromising our beliefs and/or being in bed with Minto,” Rockett said. “Thanks for your concern, but that’s not something that we’re interested in at this moment. What we are interested in is that we maintain Okeechobee Blvd. throughout our town as a two-lane-only thoroughfare. If you truly want to assist us, help us maintain a two-lane road and a rural vista view.”
Vice Mayor Ron Jarriel agreed that Okeechobee should be no wider than two lanes. “We can take a two-lane road and make it better for the residents of Loxahatchee Groves by adding turn lanes and different things to make access to Okeechobee Blvd. possible without getting killed,” he said. “The red light is our top priority.”
Jarriel said he had seen two-lane rural vista parkways and liked them.
Browning pointed out that the county already has determined that it will take Okeechobee to four lanes when the time comes, and that the town would have a limited role in planning the road.
“If nobody wants Minto’s help, so be it,” he said. “But we have to realize that they are our neighbors.”
Jarriel made a motion to let Minto assist the town in designing the roadway, which died for the lack of a second.