Wellington Pushing Forward With Annexation Despite County Objections

A map of the annexation area showing the proposed future land use. Image courtesy Village of Wellington

Wellington is pushing forward with its planned annexation of approximately 258 acres of property at the intersection of Southern Blvd. and Seminole Pratt Whitney Road. However, the plan has met with strong opposition from Palm Beach County and the Town of Loxahatchee Groves.

On Tuesday, Dec. 5, the Wellington Village Council approved the ballot language for the involuntary annexation process, setting up a March referendum of the approximately 30 resident electors in the area, known as the Sluggett property and Entrada Acres.

Meeting that same day, the Palm Beach County Commission voted to oppose the annexation, which could lead to a lawsuit to stop it, and the Loxahatchee Groves Town Council pondered the idea of a competing annexation action.

At Wellington’s meeting, Village Manager Jim Barnes explained that it will be the first of three meetings on the annexation. The only decision needed was approval of the ballot language to meet the deadline for the March ballot.

“There is a requirement that we go to the voters of the resident electors within the affected annexation area,” Barnes said, adding that due to the Dec. 15 deadline, the ballot language cannot change once approved.

Meanwhile, the first reading and second readings of the actual annexation ordinance will be in January and February.

Barnes told the council about his presentation earlier that day at the county meeting, including their vote to oppose the annexation.

“However, there is no required county approval for this as an involuntary annexation. They have an option as property owners to object,” Barnes said, noting that the county owns two retention ponds there. “They could go ahead at some point and approve legal action against the village.”

Should that happen, Barnes said, the county and the village would then go through an intergovernmental process for mediation prior to an actual lawsuit.

“We disagree with the county staff on their assessment of the statute as it applies to this annexation,” Barnes said, adding that he met with County Commissioner Sara Baxter, who indicated to him that she believes the land should instead become part of Loxahatchee Groves.

“The same regulatory constraints that they are applying to us, would apply to an annexation by Loxahatchee Groves,” Barnes said.

Village Attorney Laurie Cohen said that there is ambiguity in the state statute.

“We believe that the overall intent of that section does not require that the property already be developed as an urban area,” she said.

Barnes explained that the process emanated from a handful of property owners who approached Wellington with an interest to annex. That was initially limited to properties that had frontage on Southern Blvd. and Seminole Pratt Whitney Road. Once other property owners learned of the interest, they also approached the village.

Mayor Anne Gerwig favored moving forward with the referendum.

“This ballot language that will go out lets people decide,” she said. “If they decide no, then it is over. However, I find it offensive to have someone say, ‘Well, Wellington doesn’t need that, but Loxahatchee Groves needs that.’ Who decides this?”

Councilman John McGovern said that the future of development in the western communities is on the north side of Southern Blvd.

“If these folks want to come into the village, and all the development is on the north side of Southern, then we have some interest to protect our northern border and give ourselves a stake in this conversation,” he said.

Barnes said that the land is not in the future annexation area of either Wellington or Loxahatchee Groves.

Vice Mayor Michael Napoleone agreed that Wellington has a stake in what happens in the area.

“This is the back door to Wellington, for lack of a better term,” he said. “To the extent that we have the ability to control what happens there, I’m in favor of this as long as there is a net positive to us.”

Two members of the public spoke, one opposed and one in favor.

Nancy Gribble, president of the Fox Trail Property Owners’ Association, representing a rural residential community west of the subject parcels, took issue with the village’s feasibility study for “mischaracterizations.”

“Our community is very concerned about what you are doing to develop on the Sluggett property, which immediately abuts our community,” Gribble said. “We feel that is driving this whole annexation grab. I don’t know why Wellington wants to cross Southern Blvd. It has always been the natural boundary.”

Andres Reynolds, a property owner on Rembrandt Road, in the annexation area, supports the annexation. He said that his family has owned property there since the 1980s.

“If Wellington is interested, we are willing, and I hope you guys will fight for it,” Reynolds said.

Cohen was asked what would happen if the ballot language is approved, but the council does not approve the actual annexation ordinance. She explained that the wording will appear on the ballot, but if the ordinances are not approved by the council, the vote will be meaningless.

Councilman Michael Drahos made a motion to approve the ballot language, which passed unanimously.

The tenor of the discussion was much different earlier that day at the Palm Beach County Commission meeting, where county staff asked the board for direction on the annexation.

Principal Site Planner Khurshid Mohyuddin led a presentation on the topic. He explained that the county’s charter requires a supermajority vote of the county commissioners to approve voluntary annexations, but since Wellington’s is an involuntary annexation, that does not apply.

Two parcels in the annexation area, totaling 10 acres, are owned by the county and are used for stormwater retention. The current county zoning is rural residential over most of Entrada Acres and commercial on the Sluggett property, Mohyuddin said. Wellington would allow commercial on all the properties with frontage on Seminole Pratt and Southern, with medium-density residential on the rest.

Wellington has more than 50 percent of the land area providing consent and plans a referendum of electors to make the annexation effective. Mohyuddin summarized county staff concerns that the annexation land does not meet the definition of “contiguous” and the requirements for “urban purposes” set by state statutes. He added that Loxahatchee Groves has met with the county to object.

Commissioner Marci Woodward asked if Loxahatchee Groves has plans to annex the area, and Mohyuddin replied that there are no town plans to do so at this time.

Barnes addressed the commissioners at the meeting.

“We disagree with staff’s assessment of the annexation,” he said, explaining that the South Florida Water Management District’s stormwater treatment area makes the land contiguous to the village. “This annexation process puts the decision in the hands of the resident electors. They are the people who should decide.”

Goeff Sluggett spoke on behalf of his father, Richard Sluggett, who is the largest property owner in the area. “My father is totally in support of annexing into the Village of Wellington,” he said.

Loxahatchee Groves Vice Mayor Robert Shorr was sharply opposed and called it “a travesty.”

“I am here to emphasize the rural character of this area,” he said. “Aside from the Sluggett property, which the county already gave commercial zoning to years ago, the other 37 properties is Entrada Acres, which is a rural-designated community.”

He said that the proposed annexation is “not fair to the character of the neighborhood.”

“They chose the non-voluntary route because you can stop the voluntary route,” he said, adding that Wellington could convert that land into a million square feet of commercial and homes for up to 1,000 people at the maximum proposed land use of eight dwelling units per acre.

Shorr said that Loxahatchee Groves held up on annexing the area to allow the Indian Trail Improvement District time to go through its recently unsuccessful incorporation procedure, which included the area.

Jeff Kurtz, project coordinator for the Town of Loxahatchee Groves, noted that he was once village attorney in Wellington.

“Wellington has not shied away from telling us what they are going to do with this property,” Kurtz said. “They are talking about a million square feet of commercial. They are talking about housing at three to eight units per acre. This is for property that right now has 30 to 36 developable units out there.”

Baxter was critical of the proposal. “I don’t think what they want to do fits the area,” she said, making a motion to oppose the annexation.

Mayor Maria Sachs agreed. “This sounds like a nice little rural enclave that we should maintain as it is,” she said.

Assistant County Administrator Patrick Rutter said the county’s opposition would start with a mediation process but could lead to a county lawsuit against the village.

“Should the village approve its final ordinance, we would challenge it through an intergovernmental dispute process,” he said.

Baxter made a motion to oppose the annexation, which passed 5-1 with Commissioner Michael Barnett dissenting and Commissioner Mack Bernard absent.

At the same time that Wellington was voting on the ballot language, Baxter attended the Loxahatchee Groves Town Council meeting to discuss the annexation issue.

“We at the county are going to try to oppose the annexation,” Baxter said.

She suggested that Loxahatchee Groves also attempt an involuntary annexation of the residential portion of Entrada Acres and put that on the ballot as well, to let the residents of the area decide if they want to be in Loxahatchee Groves or Wellington.

“I don’t know how expedient you can be, but it may be a way for you to give the voters the option of where they would want to go,” Baxter said.

She suggested that the council call as many special meetings as necessary to make it happen.

Town Attorney Elizabeth Lenihan explained the steps necessary to put the item on the ballot and was concerned there would not be enough time to get it done by the March deadlines.

Councilwoman Marianne Miles noted that the town discussed annexing this area several years ago and did not pursue it.

“At one point, as a council, we said we were going to be proactive, not reactive,” Miles said. “Now here we are again with our hands and feet in the fire, trying to recover what we should have gone after in the first place.”