Lox Groves Moves Quickly To Create Agritourism Panel

The Loxahatchee Groves Town Council held a special meeting Monday, Dec. 18 to quickly put into action the creation of a short-term Agritourism Committee agreed to during the council’s previous meeting Dec. 5.

After discussing the issue again, the council voted to create the committee, which will sunset at the end of April.

Also at the meeting, the council got an update on local annexation issues, with officials confirming that while the town hopes that Palm Beach County manages to stop Wellington’s annexation of nearby Entrada Acres, Loxahatchee Groves will not attempt to get a competing annexation referendum set up in time for the March 2024 ballot.

At the Dec. 5 meeting, the council directed staff to bring back a resolution establishing an Agritourism Committee. The purpose of the committee is to recommend wording on how to deal with “substantial offsite impacts” of agritourism activities and to develop recommendations to mitigate these impacts, balancing the needs of the agritourism industry with the health, safety and welfare of the public.

The council decided to create the committee after representatives of the agritourism industry attended the Dec. 5 meeting and argued that the town’s initial proposed wording would create onerous rules and regulations, and likely run afoul of state law.

The council agreed that the proposed committee will meet for several months to develop the appropriate wording.

While the initial proposal was for the committee to sunset at the end of March, the council decided to extend it to the end of April, since it will likely not meet for the first time until sometime in the middle of January due to delays caused by the holiday season.

During that time period, however, the committee can meet as many times as it deems necessary.

While Councilwoman Phillis Maniglia suggested putting a lay person not involved in agritourism on the board to provide a different perspective, the rest of the council agreed that only members of the industry should serve on the board. Initial appointees included with the agenda backup were Darrin Swank, Simon Fernandez, Liza Holman and Joseph Chammas.

A motion to create the committee was approved unanimously by the council.

Also on the agenda was an update on annexation issues, which Town Manager Francine Ramaglia said was primarily to correct rumors and misinformation that is out there.

She noted that there is not enough time to pursue an involuntary annexation of the Entrada Acres property in time for a March referendum, and no such town action has been undertaken.

However, she noted, County Commissioner Sara Baxter’s office is willing to help the town with a voluntary annexation process, which would take eight to 12 months.

Wellington’s meetings to vote on an annexation ordinance will be held Jan. 9 and Feb. 6. Palm Beach County officials will attend those meetings to object, Ramaglia said. If Wellington approves the annexation, the county has 30 days to start a legal challenge.

“Technically, it’s possible that it will be on the ballot, but there will be litigation over the results of an election,” she said. “The Town of Loxahatchee Groves did not initiate an annexation or annexation conversation, and the council did not give the staff direction to find out about annexation. The only thing that the town has done is try to protect its rural lifestyle by requesting the county to oppose Wellington’s annexation of lands that are in the rural tier… That area is very similar to us, and we did not want to see one million square feet of commercial development, as well as high-intensity residential and mixed use.”

The council agreed that the town’s current goal is to prevent Wellington’s annexation effort.

“There are many reasons to help our neighbors protect their lifestyle,” Vice Mayor Robert Shorr said.

The council asked Town Attorney Elizabeth Lenihan about the voluntary annexation process, which would require approval of all the property owners, an ordinance of the council and approval by five members of Palm Beach County Commission, as well as a majority vote of the registered electors in that area.

“What if we expanded the annexation area?” Mayor Laura Danowski asked, adding that she would be looking for areas of similar backgrounds to Loxahatchee Groves.

She floated the idea of annexing as far north as Sycamore Drive, which could potentially take in much of the Royal Ascot Estates neighborhood.

“To me, that would make sense,” Danowski said. “It would be a bigger pool of people, perhaps being willing volunteers to preserve their lifestyle and not have to be the new Wellington.”

Maniglia was concerned about how that would change the town’s voting dynamics and doesn’t think that would fit the town’s lifestyle.

Councilwoman Marge Herzog agreed.

“That voting block was discussed at length during the incorporation process,” she said. “Their population outnumbers ours, probably, with all of the houses there.”

Councilwoman Marianne Miles said that she was not scared about changes to the voting base, and either the town needs to act and bring in similar properties to protect rural lifestyles, or not get upset about what Wellington is doing.

“You can’t have it both ways,” she said. “Those property owners know what we’re about. It’s up to the people if they want to do that and join with us… We can see what we can do, or be quiet and let everything around us close us in.”