Welcome to Palm Beach County’s newest city: Westlake (pop. 5).
Only a handful of people live in this hamlet just to the north of Wellington. But when developer John Carter surveys the still mostly barren landscape, he sees South Florida’s next bustling and vibrant community.
The population will start climbing by the end of the year and could eventually reach 15,000 as the development’s 4,500 homes are built over the next decade.
Since June 2016, Westlake’s five residents have voted to form a government in a bizarre mail-in election. The city now levies taxes and has been recognized by the U.S. Postal Service. A palm tree-lined road has been built, leading to a sales center in what will eventually become the town center.
“A year ago, you would have been standing in a field of grass,” says Carter, vice president of Minto Communities, Westlake’s developer.
Pitching a Florida lifestyle
At a grand opening event this past weekend, about 3,500 people came — some from as far away as Coral Springs and Miami-Dade County, Carter said. About 20 made reservations to buy homes.
The development’s 3,800 acres used to be the Callery-Judge orange grove. Beyond that, swampland stretched as far as the eye could see. More than 11,000 homes have now been approved to be built in the area — making this area one of South Florida’s fastest-growing spots.
Carter isn’t in the business of selling oranges. He’s pitching the Florida lifestyle.
More than 90 percent of the development’s first 325 homes in the Hammocks neighborhood will be on man-made lakes — some featuring screened-in pools with water views.
Models showcasing floor plans have been built, and homes will be ready for buyers to move into by end of the year.
Carter is seeking pioneers — people who want to put down roots in one of the few areas of South Florida where glimpses of Old Florida can still be had. Developers are touting the development’s relative affordability, a place where firefighters, teachers, nurses and other middle-class families can call home. Homes start at $276,000, but that’s lower than the county’s median sales price of $325,000. Top-end homes will approach $500,000.
Neighbors fought the development for years, fearing it would bring an influx of traffic to their quiet community. To get to Westlake, you’ll pass cattle grazing in fields, feed supply stores, homes on gravel roads and signs advertising horse boarding.
Out of that landscape, Westgate’s entrance markers now rise. Carter said he foresees a walkable community that will include offices, restaurants and shops. Residents could jump in a golf cart or hop on their bike to grab dinner at the town center. A pool, BMX course and other entertainment options will be available to residents.
Facing a commute
It’s about a 35-minute drive from Westlake to downtown West Palm Beach. Boca Raton is about a 50-minute journey.
Ned Murray, a Florida International University professor studying South Florida’s real estate market, said he suspects many buyers will be willing to move to this now out-of-the-way locale.
As housing prices increase, people are often forced to live farther away from their jobs, which can be problematic, he said. On average, Palm Beach County residents already spend 65 percent of their income on housing and transportation costs, according to Murray’s research. Ideally, that number would not exceed 45 percent.
The county’s median sales price is out of reach for about 82 percent of Palm Beach County’s households, Murray said.
Developers are offering down-payment assistance — up to 3 percent of the purchase price in the form of an interest-free loan — along with discounts for government and civil service employees.
Ken Johnson, a housing economist at Florida Atlantic University, said he expects Westlake and other new communities in the area will have no shortage of interest in today’s market.
“Florida is going to keep growing,” Johnson said. “A lot of it is it’s fun to live here. We have great weather.”
Felicia Latchaw, 30, walked through several model homes this week. The single mom of three works at a medical office in Wellington.
Even though the land is mostly empty now, Latchaw said she could see a future for herself and her children in Westlake.
“I am looking for more of a community setting,” she said. “Palm Beach County is very expensive, but this is where all my family is so this is where I want to be.”
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How Westlake was born
Westlake was a development fight decades in the making.
Back in the early 2000s, during South Florida’s building boom, as many as 10,000 homes were proposed for Callery-Judge Grove by its previous owners.
The Palm Beach County Commission, under pressure from Loxahatchee residents worried about losing their rural lifestyle, had initially balked at those building plans.
But in 2006, state law changes pushed by Callery-Judge made it easier to develop by easing restrictions on urban sprawl. A 2012 tailored-made state law pushed by lobbyists gave Callery-Judge’s owners the ability to form a city — even with only a handful of residents — and chart their own future.
Minto Communities acquired Callery-Judge Grove in 2013.
A year later, the county approved Minto’s plans to build about 4,500 homes and 2 million square feet of shopping centers, offices and other business space.
On June 20, the area’s five residents voted to form a city, and Westlake was officially born.