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Soaring values make a winner

Le Lac in West Boca
Once a big pit – now a paradise

By STEVE FRIESS, STAFF WRITER,  THE SUN-SENTINEL, South Florida
For a subdivision that started out as a giant pit, Le Lac is something of an unlikely winner.

It has no country club. Not a single golf hole. Tennis courts are built on private property and, per the homeowners association’s rules, are hidden from street view by lush trees. The 70-acre lake that gives the 200-acre neighborhood its name isn’t even fit for swimming.

Yet the West Boca community of 32 lots has developed slowly and prosperously since the days in the 1970s when George Elmore’s Hard Drive Construction Co. used the farmland as the source of dirt to raise up new sections of Interstate 95. As part of Elmore’s county-approved mitigation plan, the hole in the ground became a lake, along which Elmore built his own mansion.

Last year, assessed valuation on Le Lac’s 25 existing homes shot up an average of 28.9 percent over 1998, the biggest surge of any subdivision in Palm Beach County. Five more homes are being built this year, the most to be under construction at any one time. Two others are vacant.

That activity, along with the sale of one 4.7-acre, 10,452-square-foot Le Lac home for about $3.2 million, drove the average assessment for the neighborhood to about $2.2 million, up from about $1.7 million. Actual values are likely higher, as shown by the house that was sold, which was assessed in 1998 at $1.5 million and at $2.6 million in 1999.

“It’s frankly shocking for somebody like me to see how things appreciate,” said Al London, the Le Lac Homeowners Association president, whose 3.2-acre estate was taxed at $1.4 million in assessed valuation in 1999. He bought the land in 1994 for $467,000. The county figures the market value is now $2.3 million, but Florida law prohibits assessments from rising in a single year by more than the lesser of either the consumer price index or 3 percent unless the home is sold or major improvements are made.

“Some of us who got here earlier got lucky. I don’t claim to be brilliant. It’s just country living and large pieces of land,” London said.

Such an atmosphere is rare and precious in this nook of the county, where the congested corner of Clint Moore Road and Military Trail is within a mile of Le Lac’s winding, country-road-style entrance. Nearby upscale subdivisions like Broken Sound, Polo Club and

Woods Landing have packed more houses and amenities on less land — and have seen property values rise quickly, too —but Le Lac residents revel in their wide open spaces and a lake refuge where alligators, foxes and rare birds can be sighted.

That allure has attracted older retired couples and younger stock-market millionaires with children, London said. Florida Marlins owner John Henry has a 39,000-square-foot spread on 6.5 acres in Le Lac that Realtors value at $20 million, but the county capped his tax assessment at $6.2 million because, officials say, there’s no way to determine the true market value of something so large unless it is sold.

“You couldn’t plan a Le Lac,” said Coldwell Banker real estate agent Alex Curcio, who has handled several sales in the neighborhood. “Nobody would build this because it wouldn’t be economical.”

Master-planned subdivisions with more houses per acre and popular amenities are far more profitable. But Elmore, a road builder and not a home developer, said his primary motive was aesthetics, not profit. First he built his house, then he sold off pieces of land one by one to friends who built what they wished on no less than five acres. Later the minimum would be lowered, and parcels now range from two to 11 acres.

Elmore’s 1978 home is now the first in Le Lac to undergo demolition to make way for the new owner’s more elaborate plans, a trend more prevalent along the ocean. The builder left Le Lac five years ago for a Gulfstream home on the Intracoastal Waterway, frustrated by having to live under rules of the homeowners association the county made him create in order to keep the lake and roads private.

As tranquil and ideal as Le Lac denizens have it, they do have a fear for their future as a placid, isolated world.

To the west of the neighborhood is the Royal Palm Polo Fields, easily within view of many Le Lac homes and separated from Le Lac only by a couple of rows of slight trees.

Someday, the owners may sell the land to a developer, striking fear that Le Lac residents may eventually have the view of a traditional,  more dense subdivision right next to their land.

“Hopefully, whatever goes up there will respect our way of life, " said London, a retired commodities broker. “We want to hang on to what we have here, because it is really unique.”