Gated communities wield clout
Article Courtesy of The Palm Beach Post

Sunday, June 9, 2002
By Thomas Collins, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

As Election Day approached, Lauren Furtado in Palm Beach Gardens and Mary Brandenburg in West Palm Beach were struggling to get their messages out to residents in gated communities, where their most vocal critics lived.

Instead, community leaders delivered a message to them: You're not welcome here -- no campaigning, no candidate forums.

The leaders got their wish. Furtado and Brandenburg lost their races.

Gated communities have amassed political might in Palm Beach County -- clearly shown in recent city elections -- by casting ballots by the bushel. Many also have limited access, helping the leaders within to become the condo commandos of the 21st century -- drumming up votes the way condominium leaders orchestrate voting in their towers.

Some will say it's sour grapes when Furtado and Brandenburg count the decisions of the leaders in those communities -- Palm Beach Gardens' PGA National and West Palm Beach's Ibis and Riverwalk -- among the reasons for their defeats. Area planners say this: Told you so.

These tugs of war pose a huge challenge to city officials trying to create a sense of community, said Mike Busha, the executive director of the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council.

"You have a segment of the population in a city completely disconnected from the issues that are surrounding the city as a whole," he said. "The problem is that these communities have become sort of islands."

When access is denied, the critics say, it unfairly inflates the influence of a few community leaders who endorse candidates. Come Election Day, that turns into votes for their chosen contenders. Community residents flock to polling places, sometimes quadrupling the turnout of ungated neighborhoods that aren't prodded to vote by the in-house newspapers and TV channels that gated developments enjoy.

Leaders in some gated areas blame losing candidates for not rallying their supporters. And they say all residents in gated communities have minds of their own and come to their own conclusions.

Ibis leader Ted Frank, who declined Brandenburg's request to visit, said she didn't deserve a chance to address residents there.

"As far as not giving people any voices, we didn't get any voice," said Frank, part of a chorus of residents in gated areas who say they don't get their fair share of city services, a stance Brandenburg disagreed with. "I'm sorry Mary couldn't get more votes from her section of town."

Gated communities flex their political muscle openly and proudly, a product of a trend that began in the 1970s when developers started to settle into a simple pattern: gate everything. 

The craze started with Boca West in Boca Raton, the retirement Mecca Century Village in West Palm Beach, and Jonathan's Landing -- originally a retirement community called The Haven in the Jupiter area, said Ken Rogers, Palm Beach County's land development director.

For about a decade, although new communities were master-planned -- with each bush and retention pond and cul-de-sac plotted on a map -- most didn't have gates, he said.

Toward the mid-1980s, he said, developers went almost entirely with gated communities, in part, some planners say, because it's the easy sell.

Developer E. Llwyd Ecclestone, whose PGA National was a model for other gated communities around the county, says it was the buyers, not the developers, who spawned the craze.

"If they don't like it and they don't buy it, then I'm sure not gonna do it," he said.

Since then, many developments, including Horseshoe Acres in Palm Beach Gardens last year, have decided to gate themselves off after decades as open communities.

About one of every six dwelling units -- houses, apartments, condos -- in Palm Beach County's cities is gated now. The number is probably much higher in unincorporated areas, but the county doesn't keep reliable records on it.

Homes behind gates are less common in Martin and St. Lucie counties. But in all three counties, most planners confirm what seems obvious: Gates are a crucial part of the marketing package for new developments. 

Busha of the regional planning council said residents have a reason for turning to gated communities for aesthetics, road maintenance and safety.

"People lost confidence in the ability of a city or a town to provide those things," he said. 

People in South Florida crave gates because they crave economic security, said sociologist Edward Blakely, who co-wrote Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States, a book considered groundbreaking research in the study of such communities.

"People are walling in their housing appreciation," he said. "Since this is such a large portion of their real wealth, they're trying to do everything they can to support it." Another way of supporting their wealth is by voting in friendly elected officials. And leaders in gated communities take great pride in commanding attention from city hall.

"We vote usually as a bloc," said Maurice Rosenstock, a resident of Hunter's Run in Boynton Beach who handles community relations there. "And that scares the living heck out of politicians."

The development, as an organization, doesn't hold forums. That would violate its no-politics policy, he said. But that hasn't stopped him from sending letters to community residents with his individual endorsements of candidates, which is a fine line that gated community residents routinely walk. 

In Boca Raton, the Broken Sound development usually doesn't hold forums, either. But it might, if asked, as long as all candidates participated, said Joe Lipsky, a member of the community's maintenance association.

"Candidates know that if they want to get the best bang for the dollar they ought to campaign here," Lipsky said.

Sometimes candidates can't get in on Election Day, either. When Jack Davenport of Boca Raton ran for mayor last year, he couldn't visit a polling place behind the gates at Broken Sound's clubhouse. Meanwhile, supporters of his opponent there -- they greatly outnumbered Davenport supporters -- got a last chance to tell voters as they arrived to pick Steven Abrams.

"That's where it's totally wrong," said Davenport, who lost. "They have control of that community and you can't put a dent in them."

Blakely, the sociologist and author, said limiting political debate in gated communities only hurts those who live there.

"There should never be a restriction on the right to vote and if you can't hear me as a candidate, there's a restriction."

In Palm Beach Gardens, the March campaign trail ended at PGA National, where more than 6,000 voters live.

PGA National residents, particularly their leaders, were fuming over Furtado's support of a Florida's Turnpike interchange at Northlake Boulevard. To give her a chance to explain herself on that and other issues, campaign manager Bulent Kastarlak, a PGA National resident, arranged to have the League of Women Voters moderate a forum in PGA National.

The Community Awareness Network -- or C.A.N.!, which oversees PGA National's community relations -- said no. The C.A.N.! board's vote was 9-0, said the group's president, Joan Elias.

"We have had forums for candidates for our PGA board and we had 10 people attend and that may have been the reason for not doing it," Elias said.

PGA National resident Bill Ingram, one of the C.A.N.! members who voted against having a forum, said it would violate the group's policy against political activity.

But shortly before Election Day the C.A.N.! newspaper, PGA's Community News, printed a full-page ad with endorsements of Furtado's opponent, Annie Delgado, and another candidate, David Clark. "WE NEED DAVE AND ANNIE ELECTED AS THEY SUPPORT THE NEEDS AND WANTS OF OUR COMMUNITY," read the ad, which included the names of 50 people in PGA National and other communities. That's an unusually bold political move for a gated community, where most papers and TV channels don't run endorsements.

Furtado lost PGA National, 65 percent to 35 percent, and the election by 420 votes, 53.7 percent to 46.3 percent.

Though she did participate in a forum with residents of Devonshire, a senior living facility in PGA National, Furtado said she doesn't think she was given a fair shot at PGA residents.

"Constituents like to be able to see you, like to be able to talk to you, like to be able to pick your brain," Furtado said. "The neighborhoods where I was able to do that were very responsive."

A hastily arranged forum held in the BallenIsles Country Club, she said, helped her erase a 40-percentage-point deficit in the community, where she lost by just 35 votes.

"Some people might say this constitutes a right to privacy and I respect that," said Kastarlak, her manager, adding, "The control mechanism is not only for privacy. It's also for power."

But Delgado, Furtado's opponent, said Furtado's loss had to do with her performance.

"I think perhaps her losing in PGA as severely as she did may be of her own accord and perhaps how she serviced or didn't service the residents or listened or didn't listen to the residents," she said, adding, "I ran a very good campaign."

Palm Beach Gardens Mayor Eric Jablin said access isn't a factor in elections. In 1993, when he won a seat on the city council, he lost in PGA National, even though he lived there.

"That proves the point," he said. "People go out and get endorsements from the police department and the fire department. Do they really count? I think who they are really counts."

Ten miles south in West Palm Beach, Brandenburg found herself on a hit list. She didn't agree that city money should be spent on such things as bond debt and sewer systems in gated communities.

She contacted the Ibis golf-course community about attending a property owners' meeting to talk to residents about her candidacy. She was told no thanks.

"They said if I get elected they'd let me come after the election," Brandenburg said. "At that point, they'd be more interested in what I had to say."

Riverwalk didn't let her in, either, though it has held candidate forums. Brandenburg lost 54.7 percent to 45.3 percent to Kimberly Mitchell, largely because Brandenburg lost more than 90 percent of the vote in the largest gated communities, including 97.5 percent of the Ibis vote. Three years ago, she won about 95 percent of the Ibis vote, and her political consultant, Richard Giorgio, like the Palm Beach Gardens candidates, said that's evidence that the leadership led residents down a different path this time around.

"Restricting that access to those residents restricted their ability to make their own decision," Brandenburg said.

This year, Riverwalk didn't invite candidates for "personal reasons," said Jim Greene, a member of the community's Coalition of Environmental and Political Action. He declined to elaborate.

But he harshly criticized communities that as a policy do not hold open forums.

"I personally think it's a disgusting thing to do," he said. "What you're doing is you're leading people by the nose and you're not allowing them to make up their own minds. And I really, really don't like that.... I just think it's wrong." But some officials question whether it matters that the decision-makers have been boosted into office by gated areas.

Gardens Mayor Jablin, while agreeing that the gated-ungated divide poses a challenge, said perceptions that the city favors gated, western areas is off-base. Last year, when the city pondered imposing a storm-water tax, a series of neighborhood meetings was held in the older areas to get residents' opinions. When they protested, the plan was scratched. The city is now considering spending about $1 million on traffic-calming in an older neighborhood.

In West Palm Beach, the duel between east and west is a new wrinkle, adding to the challenge of servicing a city with so many needs in so many areas, Mayor Joel Daves said.

"Everybody wants the attention of the city to deal with the problem that they have," he said. "We try to deal with them as fairly as we can."

Daves has made it no secret that he thinks the city's western communities, about half of which are gated, have been treated unfairly because they pay city taxes but don't get the same services the rest of the city gets.

In ungated areas, debate ranges on how to respond to gated communities' clout. Some Gardens residents say the city needs to switch to districting. But Anne Centi, a Hunter's Run resident and former commission hopeful, said districting hasn't been the answer in Boynton Beach, which switched to districts in 2000.

"It's going to give more power to less people," she said. "We need somebody to represent the whole city."

Brandenburg in West Palm Beach said there's talk in eastern neighborhoods about getting residents to sign cards pledging to go to the polls.

"The political power," she said, "is where the vote is."