Groves Council Gives Initial Nod To Okeechobee Blvd. Overlay

The Loxahatchee Groves Town Council on Tuesday, Aug. 4 approved the preliminary reading and transmittal of a comprehensive plan amendment creating an overlay for Okeechobee Blvd. in an effort to control the future design and future uses of the road.

The ordinance will be transmitted to officials in Tallahassee for comments, and it will return for final approval sometime over the next seven months.

Councilwoman Phillis Maniglia said such an amendment should have been passed five years ago to protect Okeechobee Blvd.

“I want to tell you who really lost here on Okeechobee,” Maniglia said. “If you go back and look at all the homeowners — all the people who own on Okeechobee [now], they’re developers, they’re nurserymen, sitting, poised and waiting. They’re investors.”

She said that the people who lost out were the previous owners.

“The town did a huge injustice to them by not doing this overlay in 2015 because those properties that they sold for $600,000 are on the market for $2 million now. We did a huge injustice doing nothing,” she said.

 Maniglia said approving the ordinance would be the first step toward protecting the Okeechobee Blvd. corridor from unwanted uses and control the locations of approved uses, and the town could actively adjust it as needed.

“In some cases, we have things that are already in place that can stay in place, but they’re going to get taxed,” she said. “This is our opportunity, this council, to really start in motion to make this a real town.”

Planning Consultant Jim Fleischmann said the ordinance would be a first step in addressing nonconforming or illegal uses along the corridor.

“We will have more tools and the direction to actually sit down with them and work something out,” Fleischmann said.

He noted that the town’s Land Planning Agency passed two motions at its meeting on July 30, one approving the traffic portion of the ordinance, and another asking for more time to review details of the overlay, particularly for buffers and setbacks, to separate conflicting uses and better maintain a “rural parkway” on Okeechobee Blvd.

Councilman Robert Shorr agreed that the overlay is long overdue, pointing out that he has seen several properties on Okeechobee lately that appear to be going toward undesired uses for the location.

“Here’s our opportunity, in my opinion, to turn Okeechobee into a ‘rural parkway,’ to create that buffer,” Shorr said.

Mayor Lisa El-Ramey was not enthusiastic about approving the ordinance as it currently exists.

“This can has been kicked down the road for a long time,” El-Ramey said. “We know that we have nonconforming uses that continue to thumb their noses at the town, but if we are not very diligent in this process, we’re going to end up with the same problems we’re seeing along Southern [Blvd.] right now.”

Fleischmann explained that if the ordinance were approved that evening, it would be sent to the state, which would have 30 days to review it, and by state law, the town would have six months to give final approval.

“There’s nothing to say that between that first and second reading, we cannot make changes,” he said. “This is a start, and we would have seven months to take it to the public, take it back to the LPA and get their input.”

Maniglia made a motion to approve the comprehensive plan amendment, which carried 4-1 with El-Ramey opposed.