Indian Trail Improvement District attorney Frank Palin gave a presentation to the ITID Board of Supervisors on Wednesday regarding easements in The Acreage. There has been a longstanding controversy over rights of property owners versus easement rights in the community.
Palin stressed that his presentation was from the district’s perspective and that residents would be likely to offer their points of view from a different perspective.
“Some of the questions will be answered; other questions will be raised,” he said.
Palin explained that an easement is owned by the property owner, but the holder of an easement has certain rights depending on the agreement. He said that the easements in The Acreage go back to original deeds written by Royal Palm Beach Colony, the initial development company.
“The issue of easements in the district is very fact-based,” he said. “There are a lot of documents that are public record.”
However, property rights are a complicated matter. “If you own property, you have a whole series of rights,” Palin said. “The key thing with easements is you’re looking at use and enjoyment of those rights. The rights of the easement holder basically trump the rights of the underlying landowner.”
He said the textbook definition of an easement holder is a person or entity with the right to use someone else’s land without interference by the owner.
“The owner has the right to fully enjoy the easement,” Palin said. “If a holder has the right to go onto your property, the owner cannot use trespass to keep that person or entity off your property. The holder’s rights are superior to the owner’s rights.”
In The Acreage, ITID is the easement holder on roads, canals and various utilities, he said.
In the modern world, easements are created with the platting process. “But when The Acreage was created, there was no subdivision or platting in Palm Beach County,” Palin said.
The original landowners in the 1950s purchased about 55,000 acres including The Acreage, which was originally called Indian Trail Ranch.
“They created a drainage district,” Palin said. “They went to the state legislature and they got Indian Trail created in 1957. They bought the land earlier than that.”
A few years later, some of the same people who were involved in Indian Trail Ranch spun off and brought in different investors and created another corporation called Royal Palm Beach Colony, which became the first development company for the Village of Royal Palm Beach and The Acreage, Palin said.
Other parts of the original land now include the GL Homes property, which is still part of ITID and has offered to become an activated unit as the property is developed.
The portion that became The Acreage was created with sequential units of development primarily between 1965 and 1970, long before any individuals had actually bought land, Palin said, explaining that Royal Palm Beach Colony was not in the business of developing land, but rather subdividing lots and marketing them.
They had their engineers draw up lots, which were indicated by numbers, had roads and canals indicated on them, and eventually they were submitted to the county, which tried to improve the descriptions with its own maps.
“Palm Beach County was not ahead of its time in platting,” Palin said. “Palm Beach County did not have a platting ordinance until 1973. All this happened before Palm Beach County woke up to what was going on.”
Royal Palm Beach Colony, however, created written declarations of easements as each unit was developed, he said, explaining that it needed to be able to show potential buyers that they had access to their property, as well as to utilities, such as electricity and telephone services.
The declarations state the scope and purpose of the easements, including rights of way, canals, drainage and public utilities in favor of the general public, although the scope of public utilities is not defined.
“Historically, those public utilities are electric, telephone, gas, water and sewer,” he said. “Over the years, with technology changing, there have been other types of utilities that can use those rights of way.”
The reason that Acreage landowners are subject to Royal Palm Beach Colony’s grants of easements is because they were all matters of record at the time the landowners purchased their property, he said.
“Every sequential purchaser thereafter is going to have this language,” Palin said.
The question of easement rights came to a head between 1995 and 2008 when Indian Trail actually began developing a water utility, and other entities — the Village of Royal Palm Beach, the City of West Palm Beach, Palm Beach County and the Seminole Improvement District — courted ITID in hopes of becoming its provider, whereupon the so-called “water wars” erupted. They resulted in the county ultimately gaining utility rights in The Acreage. That came out of the failed development of the Mecca Farms property for the future Scripps site, because the state required it to have utilities.
“It was controversial, and I’m sure many of you may have been involved in that controversy,” Palin said. “These were battles over jurisdictions, not necessarily if they had utility rights.”
He said the county purchased property in order to reach the Mecca Farms land, but Scripps ended up developing at Abacoa in Jupiter instead.
“Questions arise over why certain people were paid by the county for easement rights,” he said. “If you read the original easements from Royal Palm Beach Colony, it refers to utilities for public purpose. There was nothing preventing the property owner from selling that easement to Palm Beach County, and they did.”
ITID sued the county, and in 2008 reached a settlement and eventually an interlocal agreement under which ITID signed over its water utility to the county, and the county compensated the district for disruption of roadways, and acknowledged that the county would have to obtain permits from the district.
That was a significant victory, Palin noted. “Up to that point the county had said, ‘We can just ignore Indian Trail,’” he said.