The Indian Trail Improvement District Board of Supervisors reviewed a long list of legislative priorities for next year’s state legislative session on Wednesday, Aug. 21, including several items that did not get to the floor of the legislature this year. After an in-depth discussion, the board approved a new goal — to get legislation passed that would allow Acreage residents a possible vote on incorporation.
At the head of ITID’s legislative priorities were the completion of the J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area levee at a cost of $5.7 million, construction of the M-O Canal gate and continuation of the Moss property stormwater project, each at a cost of $400,000, which all died in committee. The supervisors still want to pursue those projects but amending ITID’s charter to allow an incorporation vote dominated the discussion.
Although special districts such as ITID are forbidden by statute to advocate for incorporation, the electorate can amend the charter to allow incorporation through a voter-initiated referendum.
ITID’s lobbyist David Ramba was on hand for the discussion. He noted the situation in Broward County, which in recent years has eliminated all of its unincorporated areas, insisting that all developed land be contained within municipalities.
“They no longer have any unincorporated developed land in Broward County,” he said. “It was a 10-year project.”
Eventually, he predicted, that is what is going to happen in Palm Beach County.
“It’s based on utilities, it’s based on law enforcement, it’s based on all sorts of different issues,” Ramba said. “The idea is that the district needs to plan for the future. There’s a general legal standard that you should not be expending district funds on incorporation of your district, because that is not a power or duty outlined under Chapter 298.”
However, the district can spend money on amending its charter, the state law that gives ITID its powers. “If you amend your local bill to work on [incorporation] from a planning perspective, you are amending your special act and you can spend funds,” he said.
For example, while the district cannot spend money on a specific incorporation study, there are planning functions that fall within the allowable items.
“Because of the early session, I wanted to make sure you guys knew about that and have a workshop discussion,” Ramba said. “All these issues are issues that we can continue to kick down the road, but you currently have a new manager who has plenty of municipal experience.”
He said that ITID has opportunities to increase its power to deal with conflicts, such as residents’ arguments for or against streetlights and fights with Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue over speed bumps.
Ramba noted that the last time he brought up incorporation was in 2004, and he nearly got run out of the room. “It’s 15 years later, and the same issues are still out here,” he said, adding that he and ITID’s legal staff would need several weeks to draft the necessary documents.
He asked for board members’ opinions on how to deal with issues, whether through county services, the district, a combination of county and district services, or to move toward municipal incorporation.
ITID President Betty Argue said one of the issues discussed at an earlier meeting is the difficulty in making contiguous boundaries for a municipality. For example, ITID’s boundaries include parts of other municipalities. Bay Hill and Rustic Lakes, which are part of the district, have been annexed into Palm Beach Gardens, while Madison Green and other areas are part of Royal Palm Beach.
“In order to remove them from our legislative boundaries, we would need to coordinate with those municipalities to come up with an interlocal agreement, and the board would have to be in agreement that we would pursue that,” she said.
Argue did express concerns that The Acreage could be annexed piecemeal by other municipalities.
“I kind of feel like we’re sitting ducks with Palm Beach Gardens annexing Rustic Lakes and Bay Hill,” she said. “That brings them across Northlake [Blvd.]. It now allows them to continue annexing.”
She said the argument against annexation is that the community is protected by the Acreage Neighborhood Plan and the county’s comprehensive plan.
“Guess what? State statute overrides all of that,” she said. “We don’t have the protections that I’ve always argued that we have because the statutes say that we don’t need to have all that. We’re in a situation where we wouldn’t even be able to fight it at this point, except as it relates to works of the district.”
Argue recommended that the board come up with a charter amendment that would allow a petition that would trigger authorization to take the steps to look at an electorate-driven incorporation.
“If the electors don’t want it, then that’s fine,” she said. “I don’t think there has actually been a formal referendum on incorporation.”
Supervisor Joni Martin agreed with taking an initial step toward incorporation.
“I’m just hearing way too many complaints from residents who feel like we’re just being run over,” Martin said. “We’re also mindful that many of the residents never wanted to be incorporated… but we need some real protection, otherwise we are going to wind up being annexed into Palm Beach Gardens and being parts of Westlake and parts of Royal Palm Beach.”
Supervisor Tim Sayre asked Ramba how the question of amending the charter to allow an avenue for incorporation came up, and Ramba said the question had always been there. He had brought it up in order to avoid further delay, if the electorate wanted to initiate the process.
Sayre said there are major pitfalls to incorporation as well. “I have no problem looking at it,” he said. “If that’s what the people want, that’s great. If it’s not what they want, that’s fine with me also.”
However, he cautioned against what he sees as scare tactics.
“Palm Beach Gardens has not annexed anybody that doesn’t have city water, that doesn’t have [sanitary sewer],” he said. “They’re not interested in houses that have wells and septic tanks. Loxahatchee Groves can annex us, but they’re not interested in doing that either. Royal Palm Beach could annex, too, but it would cost them a ton of money.”
Sayre said he was willing to look at a possible incorporation, but he wanted to be sure that both sides of the argument were presented.
Argue clarified that she only wants to provide an avenue for residents if they so choose. “We’re not taking any steps to incorporate,” she said. “All I’m doing is asking the board to consider putting in a path to do that.”
She said that she had brought up the question in order to give Ramba and his staff time to draw up the necessary documents for the board’s possible approval in September, in time to go before the Palm Beach County Legislative Delegation.
Sayre asked how many voters would be needed to sign a petition to start the process. “We have about 30,000 registered voters out here; 40 percent of 30,000 is 12,000,” he said.
Ramba said a lower number would probably be sufficient to get the process started.
“There’s a 3,000 level for recalling municipal officials,” he said. “There’s all sorts of standards out there — 1,500 is 5 percent of 30,000, and 5 percent seems like a reasonable number for you to be able to take a look at it.”
He said 40 percent is still the ultimate target to initiate an actual referendum, which would require 50 percent plus one of votes cast to approve incorporation.
Argue received a consensus of the board to draft a local bill to amend the charter.
Ramba said he would work with the district’s legal staff to have the documents ready for approval in September.