A battle years in the making between the Village of Wellington and the Pine Tree Water Control District over maintenance responsibilities of six roads in the rural Rustic Ranches neighborhood appears no closer to a settlement after discussions at the Wellington Village Council meeting on Tuesday, May 14. In fact, the issue is likely headed to the courts.
The issue has been front-and-center in the minds of Rustic Ranches residents since September 2018, when the village discontinued road maintenance after failing to reach an agreement with Pine Tree, a special district with limited government responsibilities in the area.
Who is at fault, however, is a matter of heated debate.
The Village of Wellington believes that the roads should be maintained by Pine Tree, but Pine Tree and many of the property owners in the area believe that the roads are owned by the Village of Wellington and should be maintained by the village.
An isolated neighborhood on the west side of Flying Cow Road in western Wellington, Rustic Ranches was annexed into the village in 2004.
Village Attorney Laurie Cohen explained the village’s point of view in an interview before Tuesday’s meeting.
“Pine Tree is an independent special district. It has its own power; it has its own duties as a governmental entity. In its enabling legislation, the state legislature gave it the authority to maintain the roadways within the Rustic Ranches community,” Cohen said. “We believe the roadways are an integral part of Pine Tree’s water control plan and the obligation to drain and reclaim the land. For many years, Pine Tree maintained the roads in Rustic Ranches. In 2004, after we annexed them into the village, we entered into the interlocal agreement whereby Wellington maintained them.”
That continued for years, even after a referendum to make Pine Tree a dependent district to the Village of Wellington was voted down by Pine Tree voters, who are mostly Rustic Ranches property owners.
“After the landowners within Pine Tree voted not to become a dependent special district, we should have terminated the agreement at that point. It was contemplated in the agreement that that would occur,” Cohen explained.
While the residents believe that Wellington made a promise to maintain the roads permanently after the community’s annexation, village officials assert that would require a continued agreement with Pine Tree, either by it becoming a dependent district or through an interlocal agreement.
Village Manager Paul Schofield addressed the situation at Tuesday’s council meeting.
“Rustic Ranches is a subdivision that was approved by Palm Beach County in the 1970s under the process called an affidavit of exemption. What the developer did in this case was, he said, ‘We do not want to comply with county subdivision regulations, but we are going to have lots that are at a minimum of just over five acres.’ In order for you to get the affidavit of exemption, you have to do a few things. You have to specify who’s responsible for drainage, and who’s responsible for the roads. In this case, the specification was the Pine Tree Water Control District. From the mid-1970s to 2004, Pine Tree did, in fact, maintain the roads,” Schofield explained. “In 2004, on annexation, we entered into an agreement with Pine Tree that we would provide government services, some of which would be directly paid for, and some collected by a gas tax.”
That agreement did have an opt-out clause, which Wellington has now used, Schofield said.
“That agreement contained a provision that either party could opt out of it in 270 days,” he said. “When we were going through the process of making Rustic Ranches dependent, the residents voted not to do that. We never said it would be done [maintain the roads] at no cost to Pine Tree.”
The village terminated road maintenance in Rustic Ranches in September 2018. For a short time, Pine Tree began maintaining the roads, but discontinued that service in February. Since then, the roads have not been maintained by either side.
At the council meeting, two solutions to the matter were discussed. One solution would be to join together for a new interlocal agreement with Pine Tree regarding the roads in Rustic Ranches. A second solution would be that the residents can dedicate the roads to the public, since there is no process where Wellington can maintain private roads.
“The new interlocal agreement would have to be with Pine Tree,” Cohen said at the council meeting. “While the Rustic Ranches residents are expressing their opinions, Rustic Ranches is not a governmental entity. We are dealing with Pine Tree. We have heard nothing from the Pine Tree board about this issue.”
While Pine Tree is an independent special district, all three elected Pine Tree board members are property owners in Rustic Ranches.
Approximately 30 residents from Rustic Ranches attended the council meeting. They sat attentively in a group and stood in solidarity each time one of their members approached the podium. It was tense at times, with Mayor Anne Gerwig quieting the crowd, noting that they could not speak over the council as the council was discussing business.
Carol Montgomery, representing a group of the landowners, spoke at the meeting. She also spoke directly to the Town-Crier in a recent interview.
“In 2004, the Village of Wellington courted the residents, promising us that they would maintain Rustic Ranches roads at a high standard and to bring these roads into the Wellington street system,” Montgomery said. “In exchange for the promises, Rustic Ranches landowners voted to annex into Wellington.”
Leland Wright, president of the Pine Tree Water Control District, also spoke to the Town-Crier this week, stressing that his district controls water, not roads.
“Our job is to control drainage of the water, the swales along the edges of the roads that drain water, the culvert pipes that water is drained through, the canals that drain the water off, and the banks,” Wright said. “The dispute about maintaining the roads in Rustic Ranches is between the landowners in Rustic Ranches and the Village of Wellington. As Pine Tree has discovered through research during a [previous] lawsuit filed against the village, the Village of Wellington owns the roadways. The management of the roads is Wellington’s and nobody else’s responsibility.”
That, however, is not the view of the village. At Tuesday’s meeting, the council approved a resolution declaring a health and safety emergency regarding road maintenance in Rustic Ranches. This will allow the village to bypass a state-imposed mediation period before one governmental agency sues another. According to Cohen, Wellington’s next step would be to go to court to compel Pine Tree to maintain the roads.
In other business:
• The council recognized Volunteer Sergeant Kenneth Finkleman and Volunteer Captain Chet McCarthy for their hours of volunteering to keep Wellington safe.
• Resident Henry Brodie spoke about the need for a senior center in Wellington. He asked the council to find a location where seniors could have their own site and where businesses could locate in order to offer services to the seniors.
• After months of discussion, the council granted final passage to a new ordinance regulating nightclubs in Wellington. The ordinance explains that an establishment has to have four out of six listed criteria to be classified as a nightclub. If a cover charge is paid, there is a dance floor or live music, alcohol is served, a onetime membership fee is paid, and the event happens during the hours of midnight and 8 a.m., then the criteria have been met. The ordinance requires the establishment to hire properly licensed security inside and outside the establishment covering 150 patrons to each officer. No one under age 21 can be admitted to such establishments.