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Palm Beach County approves controversial luxury development deal in the Ag Reserve

Critics and proponents of GL Homes' contentious land-swap deal speaking during public comment at the Palm Beach County commission chambers. 5/3/23
Wilkine Brutus
Critics and proponents of GL Homes' contentious land-swap deal speaking during public comment at the Palm Beach County commission chambers on May 5.

The Palm Beach County Commission has approved a contentious deal that will allow a private developer to build luxury properties on protected farmland.

Commissioners late on Wednesday agreed to a land-swap proposalthat clears the way for GL Homes to build luxury houses and parks across nearly 700 acres on land it owns in the Agricultural Reserve.

The 5-2 vote followed a day’s worth of presentations by county staff and GL Homes, and passionate remarks from proponents and critics, many of whom argued more development could have costly environmental impacts on the region.

Under the deal, GL Homes asked the commission to let it build a luxury residential development for those aged 55 and over, on 682 acres of protected land it owns in the Agricultural Reserve.

In exchange, the private developer says it will spend $150 million on a water reservoir on the Indian Trails Grove land it owns in The Acreage, located 20 miles away in the northern part of the county.

The county’s water resources staff and other experts recommended against the land-swap proposal.

Despite their recommendations, Commissioner Sara Baxter, Mack Bernard, Michael Barnett, Gregg Weiss and Maria Marino voted for the proposal.

Bernard, who has always advocated for more housing in the county, said "it's a risk he's willing to take" because he's confident that Paul Linton, the Water Resources Manager, and the rest of the county staff could work with GL Homes to mitigate environmental concerns.

And Marino, who echoed the same sentiment, said the project is an "opportunity to get property without having to pay for it" and that it hit on "6 strategic priorities" in the county's budget, including economic development, housing and homelessness.

READ MORE: Contentious land-swap deal in Palm Beach County Ag Reserve set for final vote

As for now, GL Homes says their Hyder West luxury development in the Ag Reserve includes 277 workforce housing units along with 100 acres of land for parks, 18 acres of civic land for a synagogue and a facility for people with disabilities, Jewish education and other programming.

Commissioner Marci Woodward and Maria Sachs dissented.

Sachs spent nearly 30 minutes providing a line-by-line account of issues she had with the deal, including her concern over a private business building a water reservoir for county residents and any potential liability issues if something were to go wrong.

"I appreciate GL Homes wanting to do this but you're a housing developer. You build houses ... any private entity that controls our water, controls us," she said. "And we cannot have that as a government."

GL Homes wants to build a luxury residential development on its 682 acres of protected farmland the company owns in the Ag Reserve.
GL Homes

She also noted that under Senate Bill 192, Governor Ron DeSantis may prevent development "within two miles of an Everglades Protection Area." As WLRN has reported, that Senate Bill is largely seen as a response to the Miami-Dade Commission who last year authorized commercial developmentsbeyond the county’s Urban Development Boundary (UDB) — a similar area reserved for land conservation purposes.

During public comment, Lisa Interlandi, policy director at the Everglades Law Center, said the Ag Reserve was supposed to be "low density" and a buffer to the Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge. Instead, she noted, the plan would lead to over 600 acres of "conservation land being unpreserved."

"I heard some gentleman say that policies don’t last forever," Interlandi said. "Policies might not last forever but conservation easements are supposed to last forever. There’s supposed to last in perpetuity. Forever."

President of GL Homes Misha Ezratti, who gave WLRN a tour of the land the company owns in the Ag Reserve, released a statement to WLRN after the vote: "We are pleased the Palm Beach County Commission saw merit in our proposal."

GL Homes will meet with the Palm Beach County commission in the fall to present their final construction plans.

Wilkine Brutus is the Palm Beach County Reporter for WLRN. The award-winning journalist produces stories on topics surrounding local news, culture, art, politics and current affairs. Contact Wilkine at wbrutus@wlrnnews.org
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