Wellington Eyes Future Annexation Areas With Caution

A map from the workshop session showing Wellington's potential annexation areas.

When it comes to annexing territory, Wellington is having internal discussions about whether it should take a fresh look at crossing a barrier it has never pierced: Southern Blvd.

Beyond that traditional northern border lie 5,700 acres of communities northwest of the village that are not yet incorporated into existing municipalities in a still-evolving corridor of Palm Beach County.

“Once you talk about annexing these areas out here this far west, aren’t we losing the character of Wellington at that point?” asked Vice Mayor Michael Drahos during a day-long visioning workshop Wednesday, March 29.

“No, we’re just expanding our character,” Mayor Anne Gerwig said. “They’re going to get our character.”

For now, the talk is more about Wellington’s stance on possible future annexations than any pending proposals to bring neighbors within its municipal boundaries.

The debate touches on whether those residents are coming to Wellington anyway for restaurants and other amenities, as marketing pitches to sell homes often emphasize proximity to the village. Formally being part of Wellington can help promote what Gerwig called a “manicured” look through code enforcement, among other benefits.

But others questioned whether it just dilutes what makes Wellington desirable, without clear evidence it makes economic sense. Annexations increase the tax base, but also require increased spending for services over a wider territory.

“There’s no reason to annex something if the cost is more than we’re getting,” Councilman Michael Napoleone said.

The annexation discussion came at the tail end of the visioning workshop, during a portion of the meeting called “Wellington: Past, Present, Future.” The staff-led discussion was more about gauging the council’s interest in the controversial topic.

Annexation is an issue that ties into calculations about how local governments can keep revenues coming in as they run out of space within their current borders. Earlier in the day, council members heard presentations about how everything from interest rates to inflation could affect budgets.

Home values, closely linked to local government coffers, have been on quite the roller coaster ride in Wellington.

In 2022, the median single-family home price in the village reached $715,000, up 25 percent from 2021, said Palm Beach County Property Appraiser Dorothy Jacks, who made a presentation during the workshop session.

Yet in the first two and a half months of 2023 alone, that median price fell 8 percent from 2022 to $655,000, Jacks said.

The notion of Wellington crossing Southern Blvd. has come up before, but never come to fruition. Attempts to have the land that is now the Arden community north of Southern Blvd. near 20-Mile Bend join Wellington nearly two decades ago were blocked by Palm Beach County authorities in a contentious episode.

Still, much has happened since then. Development, current or planned, has continued apace in areas open to potential annexation now, on the northern side of Southern Blvd., west of Wellington.

Meanwhile, communities tucked near Wellington’s south end are also coming up again in the village’s annexation conversation, including the Wycliffe Golf & Country Club and Farmington Estates.

Talks with such nearby unincorporated pockets are not new, happening off and on for many years. Hurdles to joining with various neighborhoods have ranged from a lack of consensus within homeowner groups to complications involving matters like drainage and utilities.

Like dating, it’s a two-way issue. Both sides need to see it as a good thing. A big question within the village is how ardently to pursue a “romance,” as more than one council member put it, with such potential partners.

Historically, the village’s annexations have come in fits and starts, alternating between periods of border contentment and bursts of expansion.

In 1995, Wellington encompassed a little more than 18,000 acres, staff members noted. Between 1998 and 2016, the village grew to nearly 29,000 acres, with much of that coming from developments to its east — but also taking in a large portion of preserve land controlled by the South Florida Water Management District that massively increased the village “map size” but without much of a population increase.

At one stage, “it was part urban legend, part joke, that basically we were just going out trying to annex anything,” Village Manager Jim Barnes said. “There was a concerted effort not to be the Magellans, the Columbuses of the world, exploring new lands and putting our flag down and saying, ‘We claim this in the name of Mother Wellington.’”

Barnes said it could be useful to determine if there is interest within the village to pursue annexations more proactively at this point.

“What’s the cost benefit to the community?” Napoleone asked. “Are we going to get more in revenue than we spend servicing that area?”

An evaluation has to be made on a case-by-case basis, Barnes said.

He said the pitch to join Wellington might include, for example, better service from the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office in Wellington’s district, in terms of deputies per capita, compared to the PBSO’s service to unincorporated areas.

But he can’t rule out that at least some residents of potentially annexed areas won’t pay more in taxes for that and other services, Barnes said.

For a lot of people, the bottom line on taxes may be fairly close, and they get the benefit of a genuine Wellington address that tends to boost property values.

Of course, even that has its downside, Barnes acknowledged. Higher home values tend to mean higher property taxes for someone who just wants to stay put.

“That’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “Folks who don’t want to move don’t want their property values to go up that much.”