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Contentious luxury development in PBC Agricultural Reserve now on hold after last minute vote delay

Planning Commission Meeting August 31 2022.png
Screenshot/Wilkine Brutus
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Palm Beach County Planning Commission Meeting on Aug. 31.

A vote on a controversial land-swap deal to build 1,000 high-end homes in a protected agricultural zone in Palm Beach County is now on hold for nine months after a last-minute postponement.

The project would allow a luxury developer to build the units in a 600-acre expanse within the Agricultural Reserve - a protected area west of Boca Raton - in exchange for 1,600 acres of undeveloped land the business owns in The Acreage, located around 20 miles away.

In addition, the builder GL Homes would save space for affordable housing units in the Ag Reserve and pay for and build a $7.5 million reservoir in The Acreage.

Commissioners were due to rule on the project this week, at a public hearing that attracted intense local interest. If it passed, the plan would be sent to the state for review.

But, in a surprise turn of events, GL Homes wrote a letter requesting the county to postpone the proposals to further assess that reservoir water project and address “several questions/unresolved points.”

Residents at the public hearing - proponents and opponents for the land-swap proposal alike - expressed concerns about the delay.

But in a 4-3 vote yesterday, Mayor Robert Weinroth, commissioners Maria Marino, Gregg Weiss, and Melissa McKinlay, who is term-limited, voted for the postponement. And commissioners Maria Sachs, Mack Bernard, and Dave Kerner voted against the postponement. The postponement will give developers until May 2023 to provide the commission with an updated version of their proposal.

The issue has sparked intense debates between environmentalists and developers. The Ag Reserve area covers 22,000 acres, stretching east of the Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge and west of Boynton Beach and surrounding cities, such as Delray Beach and Boca Raton.

Voters approved a $150 million project more than 20 years ago to protect the Ag Reserve from overdevelopment. The county included several restrictions such as low-density housing in their Comprehensive Plan and vowed to protect the farmland.

But as the county’s housing supply crisis continues, the pressure to lift restrictions and allow developers to buy up old farmland increases. Supporters say the reservoir in the Acreage would also clean water that reaches the Loxahatchee River and Lake Worth Lagoon.

But opponents, including some environmental groups and the county’s staff and planning commission, are against development of such scale in the protected Ag Reserve area because it would alter the county’s comprehensive plan and harm the “unique farmlands and wetlands.”

The county’s staff and planning commission recommended commissioners to 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.”

In the planning commission meeting, Commissioner Kerner said the homebuilders are strategically kicking the can down the road.

“When we talk about postponing, it’s not to have a conversation later about this water issue,” Kerner said. “And here’s why: it’s a tactical decision because apparently the support for this proposal isn’t here right now for the project.”

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Palm Beach County
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Photo from AG Reserve Tier- Hyder West | Palm Beach County's Comprehensive Plan

Kerner said “optics for this are not great right now” since this has been a long saga dating back to 2016 and that the “the board is being asked to postpone this for an amorphous reason.”

“There’s either support for it or there’s not. There’s either support for lifting conservation easements or not,” Kerner said.

Palm Beach County Water Resources Manager, Paul Linton, raised questions regarding the water project on the Indian Trails Grove property in the Acreage, issues regarding “maintenance responsibilities” and that despite certain regional benefits, it could take years to acquire proper permits for it to be built.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, who supports the project, says there are benefits to the water resource project and too much emphasis was being placed on potential negative impacts from development within the Ag Reserve.

“I don’t want to postpone either, but the applicant has that right to make that request per Florida statute,” McKinlay said.

Commissioner McKinlay, who said she was prepared to make a vote on the proposal, expressed disappointment over staff’s last minute questions for GL Homes before the vote.

“If I ever threw a curve ball at the midnight hour like the staff has done, the county administrator has done, not once, but twice in the last week, the last one being that last minute pitch to try to increase the requirement for workforce housing in the Agricultural Reserve from 25 percent to 35 percent without any heads up or direction from staff to do that,” McKinlay said. “I would’ve been fired.”

The county commission will revisit the issue in the next few months. In the meantime, commissioners will also allow developers to build in other parts of protected Agricultural Reserve. Some commissioners say it’s needed because of a limited land supply.

County commissioners approved two new land designations in a 5-2 vote last week that will include high density essential housing, workforce housing units, and light commercial development.

The project comes amid a local and statewide housing shortage and water quality issues. Supporters say the reservoir in the Acreage would clean water that reaches the Loxahatchee River and Lake Worth Lagoon. But opponents, including the county’s staff and planning commission, are against development of such scale in the protected Ag Reserve area because it would alter the county’s comprehensive plan and harm the “unique farmlands and wetlands.”

Wilkine Brutus is a reporter and producer for WLRN and a guest faculty member at the Poynter Institute. The South Florida native produces stories on topics surrounding local news, culture, art, politics and current affairs.