Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Ag Reserve’s Fate Is Sealed—and a Promise to Voters Broken

No one needs to wonder anymore how the Palm Beach County Commission will vote in 12 days on saving the Agricultural Reserve Area.

Based on what happened last May, the outcome already seemed clear. Last week, however, an advisory board gave the commission cover to approve GL Homes’ proposal that would break a promise made to voters 24 years ago.

That promise was to preserve, as much as possible, the county’s coastal farm belt from suburban development. Voters approved $100 million in bonds for that purpose. Accompanying rules sought to limit development in those 22,000 acres generally west of State Road 7 between Boca Raton and Boynton Beach.

GL Homes is offering to give the county about 1,000 acres west of West Palm Beach and build a water project on that site. In return, GL would get to build 1,000 luxury homes and 277 workforce housing units on property near State Road 7 and Clint Moore Road north of Stonebridge Country Club.

That site is within the Agricultural Reserve Area. For now, rules don’t allow developers to swap preserve land outside the reserve for permission to build extra homes within the reserve. The GL deal would set a precedent. Critics believe that the precedent would lead to more such deals, uncontrolled development and the end of any meaningful farm industry.

Previously, advisory boards and county staff have opposed the swap. That changed last week with the zoning commission, in a way that gives critics reason to believe that the fix is in.

Normally, staff reports recommend approval or denial of the actual proposal—in this case, the land swap. In this case, however, the staff report advised zoning commission members what conditions would have to apply if the swap went through.

Such a distinction might seem unimportant. But the wording essentially placed the staff in support of the swap. That’s part of the cover.

The zoning commission went along. All that remains would be the commission’s final vote on Oct. 24.

“I have zero hope,” said Lisa Interlandi. She is policy director of the Everglades Law Center, which advocates for conservation and opposes the swap.

Five months ago, county commissioners gave the swap preliminary approval by transmitting the plan to the state for its review. The state raised no objections. As I wrote in a previous post, that 5-2 vote all but guaranteed final approval. Yet opponents are still trying to block the deal.

Interlandi said, correctly, that the swap alone “couldn’t stand on its own merit.” So over the last year, GL has offered more and more incentives.

There’s that water project, which critics say the county could build with existing land. North-county commissioners would get to say that they stopped 1,300 homes on that land that the company will give up. Those 1,300 homes would sell for much less than the homes near Boca Raton. GL would build a park near those new homes. The company would give land for a synagogue, a Jewish school and a senior living facility.

So there’s something for almost everyone in this deal. But there is nothing for the Agricultural Reserve Area.

The swap is bad enough. But other development projects also would turn the reserve into more suburbia. Rules currently allow only two commercial districts within the reserve. A developer proposes creating a third. More would follow.

GL Vice President Kevin Ratterree referred to “a massive undertaking.” He was speaking of the development itself. He could have been referring to the political campaign GL Homes has mounted on behalf of that development.

Community speaks out over American Legion post closing

The dispute over a closed American Legion post in Delray Beach got emotional during Tuesday’s city commission meeting.

Speakers accused the commission of disfavoring veterans—members of Sherman Williams Post 188. Because all members of the post are African-American, the criticism contained an undercurrent of racism.

As I reported last week, a mediation session failed to resolve the dispute. In 2019, Delray Beach ended the post’s lease of city property at 196 Northwest Eighth Avenue and closed off the site. Though the lease allowed the post or the city to end the lease after proper notification, members of the post and their advocates believe that the city acted unfairly.

Several speakers Tuesday evoked Delray Beach’s segregated past. One said the city’s action was worse than what was happening 75 years ago. Longtime activist Yvonne Odom called it one more in “a string of indignities.” Another speaker said the post had been a “safe place” where you “didn’t have to hold your head down.” Some argued that City Manager Terrence Moore or a commissioner should have been at the mediation.

Mayor Shelly Petrolia responded that there’s “a lot of misinformation out there.” She has a point.

Florida’s open-meetings law prevents just one member of an elected body from attending a mediation session. As for Moore, he’s had the job for only about two years. The dispute goes back much longer. Commissioners said it was proper to rely on the outside counsel City Attorney Lynn Gelin supervises.

For roughly a quarter-century, the non-profit Caring Kitchen operated out of the building that the post used for meetings. Ironically, given the speakers’ tone, Northwest Neighborhood residents six years ago asked the city to move the free-meal operation from the building, claiming that it was creating a nuisance. The city did.

Commissioner Ryan Boylston pointed out that for the post even to reoccupy the building would mean considerable expense to bring it up to code. He added that the city must require any occupant to meet certain standards for leasing public land.

While the lawsuit continues, a better option might be coming. The EJS Project, one of Delray Beach’s most successful non-profits, has expressed interest in using the building for more of its youth-oriented work. EJS has the needed finances. I’m told that the group wants to let the post use the building and would incorporate “American Legion” into the name.

At a commission meeting next month, Gelin said, she will present a solicitation for use of the building.

PBC School District prevails in “Don’t Say Gay” lawsuit

Speaking of lawsuits, the Palm Beach County School District prevailed in a case stemming from what critics call Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law.

The father of a student at Emerald Cove Middle School in Wellington sued because one of his son’s teachers displayed a Rainbow Pride Flag in the classroom. According to the complaint, the family are “Orthodox Christians” and alleged that the flag amounted to the teacher advocating for homosexuality against the son’s beliefs.

But the law refers to “classroom instruction,” not personal displays. And Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Richard Oftedal noted that, at the time, the law applied only to classroom instruction from kindergarten through third grade. The Florida Department of Education has since issued what critics call confusing rules for complying with the law in higher grades.

Oftedal dismissed the lawsuit because the father claimed that he might have no option but to remove the boy from Emerald Cove. In that case, Oftedal said, the parents have options: home-schooling, virtual school or private school. Oftedal also denied the request for a rehearing.

Slow fundraising for Boca election

It was a quiet three months for fundraising in Boca Raton’s March 19 election.

Between July and September, former Councilman Andy Thomson raised $4,700 toward his attempt to rejoin the council. He resigned in 2022 to run unsuccessfully for the Florida House.

Thomson previously had raised about $46,000. Among his recent contributors is Andrea Virgin. She is co-founder and CEO of The Center for Arts and Innovation, which hopes to build a performing arts center in Mizner Park that includes the city’s amphitheater. Virgin donated $1,000.

Thomson is running for Seat D, which Monica Mayotte must leave next year because of term limits. The other candidate is Brian Stenberg, who lost to Mayotte in 2021. Stenberg had raised $770 through Sept. 30.

Yvette Drucker is seeking a second term in Seat C. She didn’t file her paperwork until Sept. 20 and had no fundraising report. She has no opponents at this point.

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Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.

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