Palm Beach County agricultural land-swap deal fails at final vote
A controversial proposal to build luxury homes on protected wetlands in Palm Beach County failed at the last hurdle after two commissioners flipped their vote in an intense 11-hour public meeting.
Private developer GL Homes wanted to build more than 1,000 age-restricted luxury homes known as Hyder West on a nearly 700-acre parcel of protected land the developer owns in the Agricultural Reserve, located along U.S. Route 441 west of Boca Raton and Delray Beach. The project also included workforce housing with 277 units, land for a synagogue, a special-needs facility for seniors and a 25-acre county park.
In exchange, it aimed to spend over $100 million on a water resource project on land it owns in The Acreage, located 20 miles away in the northern part of the county.
The land-swap deal, which would have required changing the county’s decades-old conservation laws, had split residents and commissioners. But after several months of debate and charged public meetings, it got an initial green light from the commission in a 5-2 vote in May. Earlier this month, the county’s zoning board approved recommending zoning changes to the county commission.
But on its final vote on Tuesday evening the project was killed off in a 4-3 vote, after county commissioners Mack Bernard and Mayor Gregg Weiss, in a surprising reversal, both flipped their votes against the proposal.
Commissioners Maria Sachs and Marci Woodward were also firmly against the proposal, saying it threatens water conservation and would open the door for more future development on preserved land in the county.
On the other side, commissioners Sara Baxter, Maria Marino and Michael Barnett voted to approve the deal. They argued that community and residential benefits offered by GL Homes outweighed conservation concerns, particularly during the current affordable housing crisis in South Florida.
Over a hundred people spoke during three hours of public comments, with a turnout so large that even overflow rooms were packed at the government building in West Palm Beach. Supporters for the proposal adorned blue shirts, and long-time critics, such as the Coalition of Boynton West Residential Associations (COBWRA), wore green shirts.
The vote followed a day’s worth of presentations by county staff and GL Homes.
Why did the vote fail?
For the commissioners who rejected the proposal, the unresolved construction plans for the water reservoir was a key factor. GL Homes' experts said they would schedule a meeting in November, after the vote, to solve construction questions, but that wasn’t enough to sway commissioners who voted against it.
Commissioner Bernard, who had felt the proposal could potentially benefit his constituents, grilled GL Homes’ experts over their lack of response to written questions by city and South Florida Water Management District regarding negotiating and construction plans.
“I wanted to support this project because I represent the city of West Palm Beach, and I want to protect the city of West Palm Beach water supply. But this project does not do it,” Bernard said.
“You can put lipstick on a pig and call it a land swap. Add sweeteners, add a water project, add the workforce, housing adds, so on and so on and so on, folks, it is still a pig. I'm voting no on this land swap. Those preservation parcels are God's land, not GL's," he said.
Commissioner Sachs, after questioning GL Homes for not reaching out to residents in Valencia Isles and other communites near the proposed Hyder West development, said she was “not for sale.”
“Don’t talk to me about privatization of water,” she said. “Government takes care of water.”
Republican State Representative Rick Roth made a statement against the project during public comment. “I could be for this proposal,” Roth said. “I am pushing against it because I feel like there's a couple of hanging — I don't want to say hanging chads — but there's a couple of loose ends that need to be taken care of first.”
On the other side, Commissioner Baxter said she voted in favor of the project because “government takes twice as long and twice as much to get things done.” And Commissioner Marino argued that “preserved land is still going to be preserved.”
Jeffrey Zirulnick, CEO of the Jewish Association for Residential Care, spoke in favor of the development during public comment, encapsulating the overall sentiment from supporters surrounding community benefits.
“We hear stories every day about the housing shortage or the cost of housing that impacts everyone,” Zirulnick said. “But we do not hear how this housing crisis is expanded. When you are referring to seniors who have intellectual and developmental disabilities, this population is often invisible and forgotten."
In a statement to WLRN, Misha Ezratti, president of GL Homes said, in part, “Our public-private partnership would have provided desperately needed solutions to water quality, workforce housing, Jewish community infrastructure and so much more — all at no cost to taxpayers."
It added, "Ultimately, it’s the County’s residents who will bear the true consequences of the outcome.”
GL Homes also said it plans to “move forward with our approved plans to develop approximately 4,000 homes in Loxahatchee.” That plan to build homes on land it owns in Indian Trails Grove, in the northwest part of the county, was approved by a previous board in 2016.
How did we get here?
A quarter century ago, Palm Beach County voters had agreed to purchase 22,000 acres of farmland west of Boca Raton, Delray Beach and Boynton Beach and preserve most of it against development. Under the county’s Comprehensive Plan, developers that own land within the Ag Reserve can build on only 40% of it, while 60% remains preserved. GL Homes wanted to go beyond that threshold.
The county’s water resource staff and planning commission said the project would alter the comprehensive plan and the the primarypurpose of the Ag Reserve. They had recommended commissioners reject the proposal to remain “within the policy framework of limited development” and because “the increase of residential development and the reduction in preserve acreage would alter the fundamental policy concepts to preserve agriculture in the Ag Reserve Tier."
“This proposal threatens our drinking water supply here in Palm Beach — and beyond to our neighbors in Broward, Miami and even down to the Keys,” said Cara Capp, the Everglades Restoration Senior Program Manager, in a previous report by WLRN.
Capp said the land that GL Homes wanted to develop in the Ag Reserve is “dangerously close” to the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. That’s an area where the aquifer that provides drinking water for all of South Florida is naturally replenished.
Commissioners against the proposed GL project, at the end, expressed increased concerns over allowing potential future private developers access to the county’s water supply.