When a teenaged John Carter was working alongside his tile-setter father in the early 1980s, Seminole Pratt Whitney Road was still a narrow, two-lane road to nowhere. Just south of the M Canal, Callery-Judge Grove spread out on either side over thousands of acres, orange trees as far as the eye could see.
It was then that the North Shore High School student learned from the ground up about construction, about building things, making them sturdy and cohesive, about making them last.
Today, North Shore High is the Bak Middle School of the Arts and the Riviera Beach neighborhood Carter grew up in is the spring training home of the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals. Seminole Pratt Whitney Road is two or four or more paved lanes and growing as it passes through the Seminole Improvement District (SID) and the City of Westlake, which Carter has created with astonishing speed from the ruins of Callery-Judge’s blighted groves.
This month marks the 10th anniversary of Minto Communities USA finalizing the purchase of some 4,000 acres from Callery-Judge for $51 million. Carter, who by then was a University of Florida graduate with some 25 years of construction experience and a Minto vice president, led that effort. He also led the subsequent 2016 push to use SID’s unusual powers to vote a municipality into being with only five residents.
“As far as I know, this is the only city developed like this in Florida,” Carter said. “I doubt it will ever be done again in our lifetimes.”
Of course, not everyone was happy about a large homebuilder finagling a city into existence in the middle of what had been a very rural area, surrounded as it was by the 37 square miles of the Indian Trail Improvement District.
“The attitude by ITID was to heck with you. We don’t need to deal with you,” recalled Carter as he saw it. “We’re just going to kill your project.”
Carter said he engaged in public outreach “at an unheard scale” in an effort to gain acceptance from neighbors in The Acreage and ITID more broadly. It was successful with some, not with others. At present, there’s an ongoing lawsuit between SID, Minto and ITID over whether Westlake can connect to ITID roads.
Although Minto filed the suit in 2020, Carter said the company’s hand was forced.
Blocking access to 140th Avenue North “is an attempt to re-litigate the [earlier] land-use approvals,” he said. “People involved in litigating the approvals back then… are driving the litigation you see today. Unfortunately, the cost is being borne unnecessarily by ITID residents.”
ITID officials would not comment on the suit that currently is awaiting a judge’s ruling. Carter said he expects a decision by late November.
Sara Baxter, a longtime Acreage resident, recalled that she did not want Westlake built, but now as District 6 Palm Beach County commissioner, said she is “focused on what’s happening today… I’m of the mindset that a rising tide raises all boats.”
And Westlake’s tidal surge of home sales continues seven years after its inception. The city has some 4,500 residents and is one of the fastest-growing municipalities in Florida, with residential build-out of the area’s 4,600-plus lots expected within the next three years — half the time originally projected.
Carter, who had run major projects in Dallas, Seattle and elsewhere for other developers, said with Minto, he saw the chance in 2010 to return home both physically and philosophically, leaving behind the world of publicly traded corporations for a privately held company with “high integrity, high accountability… [and] a very strong Judeo-Christian work ethic.”
The cornerstone of Westlake’s creation was a change he championed in Minto’s “strategic focus,” Carter explained. “A shift in strategy from nibbling up small parcels to let’s do fewer projects but bigger. That led me to look at the landscape in Palm Beach County. There were only a few reasonable targets, including Callery-Judge.”
Once the permitting was completed in less than half the five years Minto anticipated, the size of the project began to settle onto Carter.
“It weighs on me heavily,” he said. “Every tree, paver, bush has to be paid for… From my company’s perspective, the capital investment here is significant.”
That includes upward of $400 million in infrastructure creation alone, he said, while noting that it is the very size of the project that makes it work in terms of keeping most home sales in the $400,000 to $600,000 range — moderately priced by South Florida standards.
“You’re talking about miles and miles and miles of pipe, asphalt and concrete structures,” Carter said. “The scale we’re doing that at begins to look different [in terms of construction costs] from someone who wants to do a 100-unit development.”
The focus from day one has been on affordability, Carter said, pointing to Minto’s Welcome Heroes program that discounts homes to working teachers, police officers, firefighters, members of the military, healthcare and government workers. “These are well-appointed homes,” he said. “At a price point unheard of anywhere else in Palm Beach County.”
Layered on top of that is a “light touch” with homeowners’ association fees, no community development district fees, and outstanding community amenities and programming. Those amenities include the master HOA’s Adventure Park community center and pool.
“It’s like walking onto the pool deck at a Ritz-Carlton,” Carter said proudly.
Minto also provided millions to get the city government up and running. Westlake will be operating without a Minto safety net for the first time in fiscal year 2024, which begins Oct. 1. The developer was prepared to kick in more than $700,000 during the current fiscal year but it was unneeded, said Kenneth Cassel, who manages Westlake and SID. He is not a Minto employee.
“We have a good working relationship,” Cassel said of Carter. “I’m not afraid to call him out on stuff and vice versa. We have a shared vision of how to build a city.”
A major part of that vision is a permitting process that is consistent and moves in a timely manner so that Minto and Westlake’s other developers know where they stand and what to expect, Carter and Cassel agreed.
Despite Minto being by far the city’s major landowner and developer, Carter insists “no hall passes are being given out in terms of permitting” by either Cassel’s management team or the city council.
“I’m probably mindful to a fault of making sure there is that arm’s length between me, this company and the city government,” Carter said.
Westlake Vice Mayor Greg Langowski said Carter comes to most council meetings and provides a good view of what’s coming in the future but does not attempt to impose his wishes on the council.
Langowski described Carter as “very personable and approachable” when seen around town, including at Christ Fellowship, a non-denominational church with multiple locations, including one in Westlake that opened in March.
“My faith was my strength to navigate the headwinds we faced [during the early stages of the project] … and to continue to have love for those who were literally spitting on me,” Carter said. “It has been central to my personal and professional development.”
Today, Carter’s title is senior vice president. He’s not required to live in the city he is creating, but he does with Krys, his wife of 31 years, and their children Kayla, a college sophomore, and Kyle, an eighth grader.
And what does that say about Westlake? “That I feel that good about this community that I would raise my kids here,” Carter said. “I believe in it that much personally and professionally.”