The Loxahatchee Groves Water Control District Board of Supervisors is looking into purchasing the easements for its canals and adjoining property, the ownership of which have been in question since 1918.
The purchase price of $27,000, from Southern States Land & Timber, is a good deal, although it has not yet been established completely that the company is the true owner of the easements.
LGWCD President Anita Kane led the effort to settle the longstanding question of ownership.
“This is something that has been a long journey for me,” Kane said, explaining that a year ago, she had a conversation with District Administrator Steve Yohe, asking him who actually owns the canals and banks. “He said, ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘How about if I click on the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser?’ Lake Worth [Drainage District] owns its canal banks. Wellington owns its canal banks. It says nothing when you click on us. There’s no name. Nobody owns it. There’s this swatch of land that’s unowned.”
Kane and Yohe consulted with LGWCD Attorney Mary Viator, and they hired a consultant, Attorneys’ Title Fund, to do a search.
“It was a much longer process than I thought, but we finally received a decision from them, whether Southern States Land & Timber was one of the original land and development companies that used to own, or still owns, those canal banks and that original 60 feet since 1918 or 1925,” Kane said.
She noted that the district’s legal staff has its own opinion of the status, and had found another possible owner, now defunct, which was a Southern States subsidiary.
She added that Yohe had contacted the company believed to be the owner and negotiated a deal to purchase the rights of way for $27,000. “You’re talking about 210 acres of land, which figures out to about $130 an acre,” Kane said. “I think it’s a really good deal.”
Kane said the money could be covered from a number of sources, including the recent sale of surplus equipment, or money saved on salaries from employees who have left, but Supervisor Simon Fernandez suggested putting the property on the assessment roll and charging Southern States Land & Timber.
Yohe responded that putting it on the assessment roll would be a prolonged, four-year process and would probably draw a lawsuit.
He added that legal staff has questioned whether Southern States is the actual owner, and not a company called Palm Beach Loxahatchee Groves Company, which no longer exists.
“Ideally, what you would want to do is get a quit claim from both of those companies so there is no question as to having to deal with anybody in the future,” Yohe said.
Viator said one of her concerns is that there are three Southern States entities, and the one that they are talking with now is not the same entity that they started out with in their research.
“I do think we need to make sure we clarify which, in fact, is the correct Southern States entity,” she said.
Supervisor Laura Danowski said she favored acquiring title to the easements but agreed that further due diligence is needed to confirm that they are paying the correct company.
“The purchase of this land is going to tidy up a lot of loose ends in this town and potentially move the recreational trails forward,” Danowski said.
Joannie Hopkins asked what the point was of doing a title search if they cannot get a definitive answer to who the owner is. “Why are you even questioning this?” Hopkins said. “It’s a good deal overall. I would say step forward for this town.”
Resident Virginia Standish applauded the board for trying to resolve the issue.
“This has been a great topic of debate in the community, and to those people who say, ‘Why worry about trails and easements, we need to be concerned about roads,’” Standish said. “Well, our roads and our trails, we never had paved roads, so now we seem to need paved roads, and we need a safe area.”
Standish also asked about mineral rights to the property, much of which in the area is owned by Southern States Land & Timber.
Former Supervisor John Ryan cautioned the board to obtain mineral rights to the easements, saying that several property owners have been charged by Southern States for mineral rights in order to obtain a clear title, and the company can charge the future owner again.
Jane Cleveland, who chairs Wellington’s Equestrian Preserve Committee and owns land on C Road, said she recently held an open meeting with preserve owners where a consultant stressed the importance of a trail system.
Loxahatchee Groves Councilman Todd McLendon urged the board to pursue the acquisition.
“I strongly urge moving this forward,” McLendon said. “We’ll have actual ownership of the canals and the easements on the west side, so we can move these equestrian trails forward without having to worry about what the easement rights are.”
The board directed staff to pursue the acquisition of the easements, which will be on the agenda at the next board meeting.