“Things change.” That is Palm Beach County Mayor Robert Weinroth’s attempt to justify the possible death of the county’s Agricultural Reserve Area.
As Weinroth—the former Boca Raton city council member—sees it, conditions are different than they were in 1999. That’s when voters taxed themselves $150 million for a bond program to buy land and preserve farming in the reserve, which covers roughly 22,000 acres west of State Road 7 between Clint Moore Road and Lantana Road.
The county’s implied promise was to follow the public’s will. The county would limit development within the reserve, to keep suburbia from driving out farming. Developers within the reserve had to preserve 60 percent of their holdings while building on the other 40 percent.
Supporters of the program knew that open land near the coast would become even scarcer. Developers and landowners would ask the commission for favors and try to bend the rules. Everything depended on the commission saying no.
On Wednesday, however, GL Homes will ask the commission to change the rules. Developers now only can trade land within the reserve for permission to build elsewhere in the reserve. GL wants to trade land outside the reserve—1,600 acres west of West Palm Beach—for permission to build 1,250 homes on farmland north of Clint Moore Road and west of State Road 7. The 683-acre site is known as Hyder West.
GL Homes argues that the county could use the northern land for environmental projects. The company also would build almost 1,300 fewer homes on that site, known as Indian Trails Grove. GL says that those 1,250 homes would increase the county’s tax base by $500 million and could bring the county itself $10 million in new tax revenue.
In addition, GL would make 250 of those units on the Hyder West property, north of Stonebridge Country Club, affordable housing. Rising home prices and rentals have created a housing crisis in the county for the middle class.
Weinroth acknowledged that “promise” from 23 years ago. But, he said, the commission based that promise on “conditions” at the time. Now, the commission must “re-evalute.” GL also made this proposal “sweeter” than one the company withdrew four years ago for lack of commission support.
Weinroth and four of his colleagues already did one favor for GL Homes. Last May, they allowed the Lake Worth Drainage District to sell the company 276 acres of undevelopable land within the reserve for $22 million. GL then got to build 313 homes it otherwise could not have built.
That favor helped GL Homes and the drainage district. It did not help the Agricultural Reserve Area. Similarly, this bigger favor would help GL Homes—a lot. Those 1,000 market-rate homes in West Boca would sell for much more than the 1,285 homes GL would not build near West Palm Beach.
But this favor would do nothing for the Agricultural Reserve Area. It would do just the opposite. It would allow another 1,250 homes than the original plan envisioned. It would set a precedent that GL and other developers could use to build even more homes.
Joe O’Donnell owns a 60-acre horse farm west of Delray Beach. When the commission discussed this proposal in December, O’Donnell said allowing it “will mean the end of Ag Reserve as we know it.”
The favor also might do nothing for the county. There is no money for those projects using the northern land GL would donate. Just 250 units would do little to ease the housing crisis. And services for those 1,250 homes might cost more than the $10 million in new revenue. We don’t know because the commission allowed GL to present the deal without submitting a formal application.
Weinroth notes, correctly, that Wednesday’s vote only is whether the county should send the plan to Tallahassee for state review. If the state approved—almost a certainty—the deal would come back for a full staff review.
But the better move would be to kill the deal now. Wednesday’s vote likely will be close. We will hear the “things have changed” argument often. If the county allows this swap, the biggest thing to change—forever—will be this special place that the county promised to keep special.
Last call in Delray
On today’s Delray Beach City Commission agenda is a request from Bounce Sporting Club to stay open until 2 a.m. rather than midnight. Bounce, on the first floor of the Atlantic Crossing project, needs commission approval because it’s just outside the downtown entertainment district.
Bounce also has operations in New York and Chicago. Its website says Bounce is “high-end sports bar meets nightlife.” Atlantic Crossing has touted the business as one of its first tenants. It’s on the first floor of the mixed-use project, which will cover the two blocks west of Veterans Park on the north side of Atlantic Avenue.
The conditional-use request went to the planning and zoning board in October. After members expressed concern that the later hours could harm the nearby Palm Trail and Marina neighborhoods, the board delayed its vote until December. Board members asked Bounce to explain the layout of the club and provide details about operations.
In December, the board recommended that the commission approve the later closing time. Bounce offered to close all outdoor space and all windows at midnight and to not offer live music after midnight. Board members proposed two other conditions. Bounce would offer the full menu at all hours—presumably to make it less than just a drinking spot after midnight—and would have at least six security guards on duty between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m.
Even with those conditions, however, the vote was just 4-3. One of the dissenters was Joy Howell. She emailed a woman who lives north of Atlantic Crossing to say that “three commissioners have been listening to the residents on this.” She listed Mayor Shelly Petrolia and commissioners Julie Casale and Shirley Johnson. “If Commissioner (Ryan) Boylston is joining them, then things are moving in the right direction.”
Old School Square for the Arts’ lawsuit against the city names Howell as a defendant. The group alleges that she conspired with Petrolia, Casale and Johnson to terminate Old School Square for the Arts’ lease. One wonders about the wisdom of sending such an email.
I did ask Boylston for his thoughts. “Although I have been opposed since (the request) was first introduced,” Boylston said, “I have kept an open mind. If the surrounding communities tell me they want it, then maybe my stance changes.”
The Downtown Development Authority Board supports the conditional use. The commission can approve the request with or without the conditions or deny it.
Old School Square update
Speaking of Old School Square, City Manager Terrence Moore will present another “Updated Direction for Interim Daily Operations for the Old School Square Complex” at today’s meeting. With no plan for what happens after the lease termination takes effect next Wednesday, city employees have been helping to hold events.
One local cultural institution is ready if needed. Recently, representatives of the Boca Raton Museum of Art toured the Cornell Museum, which is part of Old School Square.
Irvin Lippman is the museum’s executive director. He told me that John DesPrez III, who serves on the museum’s board, arranged the tour. DesPrez lives in Highland Beach and, according to news reports, recently moved his financial services firm Incapital from Chicago to Delray Beach.
At its location on the north end of Mizner Park, Lippman said, “We are landlocked,” so there’s no way to expand. If there was an opportunity at the Cornell, Lippman said, “We definitely would be interested.” Like the Cornell, the Boca Raton museum offers an art school.
Lipmann stressed repeatedly, however, that the museum doesn’t want to intervene while Delray Beach is having its “conversation” about Old School Square’s future. Because the city has been unwilling to talk, that “conversation” at the moment is the lawsuit.
Speaking of Moore, his six-month evaluation is approaching. On today’s agenda is a proposed evaluation form that commissioners would use to rate Moore across nearly a dozen categories, from 1 (Unsatisfactory) to 5 (Outstanding.)
A similar form is proposed for City Attorney Lynn Gelin. The manager and the attorney are the only employees who report to the commission.
South Inlet lease
South Beach Park is one of Boca Raton’s popular beachfront parks. Though it’s within the city, Boca Raton leases part of the land from the county. The city pays for operations.
The 50-year lease, which covers nearly seven acres, dates to when Boca Raton was trying to save oceanfront land from development, expires in March. On today’s county commission agenda is a renewal of the lease. The renewal would be for 20 years, with two 20-year options.