The Town of Loxahatchee Groves held a visioning workshop on Saturday, Sept. 28 at the town’s Palm Beach State College campus attended by about 200 residents, along with current and former town officials, as well as about 20 students from a government class. The goal was to explore the results of a recent survey to learn the concerns of residents.
Consultant Kevin Knutson with Envisio, who was contracted by the town to conduct the study, said he would explain the results, followed by roundtable discussions among residents.
“One of the reasons that we do this is to determine where we want to go, but the hard part is how do you get there, and how do you pay for it,” Knutson said. “The timeline and how to pay go together. You can say you want to do something in six months, but how do you get the money?”
The town has held previous planning sessions, including those that went into writing the neighborhood plan, which was submitted to Palm Beach County in 1997 before the town incorporated.
“Back in 2008, there were visioning sessions like this that came up with the strategic plan,” Knutson said. “We’re not going to go quite as far as those two things today. We’re taking the first step, and what we’re going to do is start to work toward another plan that builds on those previous ones.”
He said there are important threads that run through the other plans that are still important now, and there are past frustrations that still have not been resolved.
“I am not here to litigate any of those. I don’t really know what happened or what didn’t,” Knutson said. “We have to acknowledge that the past happened, but we also need to look to the future. How are we going to leave where we are today to somewhere better?”
Knutson shared the results of the recent survey, starting with the question, “What do you love best about the town?”
“I ran this through a computer that pulls out key words that were repeated,” he said. “‘Rural’ pops out quite a bit — 48 people out of 93 mentioned that the rural atmosphere of the community is really, really important. ‘Equestrian’ and ‘town’ also showed up quite a bit.”
He said other words showed up in smaller numbers, such as “beautiful,” “agricultural,” “frontier” and “green space,” but he emphasized that it doesn’t mean that they are not important.
“It just means that they worded it a little bit differently,” Knutson said. “They all relate to this idea of ruralness and being out in the country and quiet and having dark skies.”
Going back to the 2008 survey, he said the responses were almost identical.
“Nothing has changed in what people want from this community,” Knutson said. “They still want those same things. When I went back to the neighborhood plan from 1997, the things that are in there are all designed to achieve this outcome, so I would assume that people wanted the same thing back then as well.”
In response to the second question — “If you could change one thing today, what would it be?” — out of 93 responses, 36 felt something should be done about the roads.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean they all agree on what should be done about the roads, it’s just that roads are very important,” Knutson said. “The next thing that was really important was controlling commercial development. In some cases, that was people saying we should have no commercial development, and some people saying that we should have certain kinds of commercial development, but the idea that it needs to be controlled and monitored carefully.”
He added that there was a smaller number of respondents who said the town should be unincorporated and become a part of Palm Beach County again.
“Lastly, and I’m not surprised to see this one, is, ‘We want to go back to speed limits and how they used to be on Okeechobee [Blvd.] rather than 30 [mph],’” he said. “It has been a while since I’ve driven on it, so I was surprised at how slow it was.”
The core of the survey was to identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, which goes by the acronym SWOT.
“These are important questions to ask people because this is usually what a strategy is built on,” Knutson said. “How do we leverage our strengths and make sure that we are using them to our advantage? How do we mitigate the weaknesses and make sure that they don’t do something to hurt us? What are opportunities out there that we can exploit? And what threats do we need to be protected against?”
Out of a total of 95 people responding to the survey, with the opportunity to respond with three answers to strengths, there were 205 responses.
“The most important one, the one that was repeated most frequently, was about the large acreage that you have in the community, the fact that it’s low density and the fact that it’s agricultural,” Knutson said. “The second highest was ‘residents,’ the people who live here, your neighbors. This is a strength of the community, that the folks in this room are what make this work. Again, we’re coming back to that rural, country feel.”
He said there was also a feeling of hope surrounding the recently elected new town council. “You’re starting over and turning the page and things like that,” Knutson said.
Other strengths included “convenience to other amenities” and “animals and equestrian uses” in the community.
Weaknesses had 252 responses, outnumbering the list of strengths.
“People are feeling that we’ve got more weaknesses than strengths,” Knutson said. “Poor roads and poor drainage are weaknesses and something that needs to be addressed. I would suggest that the next one is related to that: the lack of funds, a weak tax base and the fact that it’s hard to raise money here.”
He was a bit surprised that people feel that divisiveness and deep disagreements within the community are among the weaknesses, in light of people also responding that they like their neighbors.
Lack of code enforcement and poor decisions/poor management in the past also made the list of weaknesses.
He said opportunities, of which there were 161, revealed how optimistic people feel about the community.
“What you’re listing as opportunities also attacks those weaknesses,” Knutson said. “Being smart and strategic about economic development, particularly about commercial things, was identified as opportunities. This is something that we can work on and really make some progress.”
Maintaining the unique lifestyle and rural character also listed heavily as an opportunity.
“A number of people identified agritourism or finding ways to leverage agricultural assets of the community as a way to help the community,” Knutson said, noting, however, that several people responded that there were no opportunities in the community. “Lastly, road improvements and the funding that might be available was an opportunity.”
People listed 211 threats to the community. “I would argue that threats are actually opportunities as well, because you know that something is facing you and you need to do something about it, and you can act,” Knutson said, explaining that commercial development was listed high, even higher than poor roads. “Out of 211, 51 of them were about some form of commercial development.”
Increases in traffic and cut-through traffic also listed high on the threats list. Disagreement in politics came in fourth, and tied for fifth with 10 responses each was the idea that people from outside the community were trying to influence what happens in the community, and that special interests within the community are trying to influence outcomes rather than rule by majority.
“Those are the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats that this community has identified and wants to address,” Knutson said.
When Knutson finished his presentation, attendees broke out into work groups to come up with ideas and suggestions. A recording of the workshop will be posted on the town’s web site at www.loxahatcheegrovesfl.gov.