GL Homes Poses Serious Threat to Agricultural Reserve; Vote Will Be Close

agricultural reserve
Image: © Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post via ZUMA Wire

The public could be one county commission vote on Wednesday from losing the fight to save the Palm Beach County Agricultural Reserve Area.

Before the commission is a proposal under which the Lake Worth Drainage District would sell GL Homes—the largest builder in and around the reserve—276 acres of land of canal rights-of-way that no one can build on. By “saving” that land, GL would be able to transfer those “development rights” and build 313 homes elsewhere in the reserve where crops now grow.

GL Homes and the district have tried this scam for at least seven years. The county’s planning director and staff oppose it. So does the Coalition of Boynton West Homeowner Associations. So do all conservation advocates in the county and those who have followed the 22-year effort to protect the reserve.

Former County Administrator Robert Weisman emailed commissioners and asked them to reject the proposal unless the lawyers for the county blessed it. That won’t happen. The legal department repeatedly has determined that there is no basis for the deal.

Unfortunately, the vote likely will be close. Commissioner Robert Weinroth, who represents Boca Raton and Delray Beach, said, “I’m not sure that (the district’s legal argument) isn’t the right one.” North-end commissioner Maria Marino probably will vote for it.

The plan for the Agricultural Reserve Area always assumed a level of residential and commercial development. But these homes would be over the limit. Worse, the precedent could allow GL or any other company to repeat the scam with the drainage district and add even more homes that displace farming.

If that happened, the reserve could tip irreversibly toward suburbia and all but disappear.

Lisa Interlandi is executive director of the Everglades Law Center. She said of GL Homes, “These guys are the best in the world at finding loopholes to allow more development than was ever intended in the Ag Reserve.  They built every unit they could lawfully build under the original plan but still wanted more, so they have gotten the commission to change the rules dozens of times to allow more development.”

Mark Perry represents the drainage district. In a letter to the county, he claimed that there is “no legal basis” to reject the deal. Perry argues that the planning staff is wrongly basing its opposition on the “intent” of the language in the county’s comprehensive plan.

Yet the staff report for Wednesday’s meeting makes clear that the deal would not comply with the plan. It says, “Palm Beach County shall (emphasis mine) reserve the unique farmland and wetlands in order to preserve and enhance agricultural activity, environmental and water resources, and open space within the (reserve).

“This shall be accomplished by limiting uses to agriculture and conservation with residential development restricted to low densities and non-residential development limited to uses serving the needs of farmworkers and residents of the (reserve.)”

In addition, the report notes that giving conservation protection to the district land “would not provide any benefit to the county. . .”

Though GL is the better-known player, we would not be here without the little-known district. The agency maintains the secondary tier of drainage canals—after the South Florida Water Management District—in southeastern Palm Beach County. It has five supervisors who are elected by a vote of landowners, not the public.

Residents of Boca Raton and Delray Beach got to know the district in unpleasant ways over the last two years. The agency began a necessary program to clear areas along canals—and thus reduce the chance of that debris would cause flooding during hurricanes—but gave inadequate public notice and provoked many complaints. Elected officials had to intervene.

Perry claims that the $22 million could help the district perform “mission-critical” functions. But the district has the option of raising taxes.

Term limits have stripped the county commission of most institutional memory. The longest-serving members—Greg Weiss and Melissa McKinlay—began in 2014. The history of the reserve dates back much further.

Karen Marcus served on the commission from 1984 until 2012. She is now president of Sustainable Palm Beach County. In a letter to the commission, Marcus said that because the drainage district’s rights-of-way are “already preserved … allowing them to be used to accommodate additional development is contrary to the basic purpose on which the Agricultural Reserve was established.”

Three other bad Agricultural Reserve Area projects are on Wednesday’s agenda before the GL Homes deal. Staff recommends denial of all three. By also denying the GL/drainage district scam, the commission would discourage any similar proposals.

GL Homes, Interlandi said, is “looking to squeeze every cent they can get without any regard for the investment Palm Beach County taxpayers made to protect this area in perpetuity.” So is the drainage district.

Serious pickleball and other pursuits

pickleball

A “championship pickleball center” for Boca Raton? It’s up for discussion.

Disc golf where people once played traditional golf? It’s up for discussion.

More trails for walking and biking? Up for discussion.

Last week, Boca Raton City Council members and Greater Boca Raton Beach and Parks board members discussed the new recreation survey. The 10 elected officials will decide which requests from the survey get money to meet the area’s needs for the next 20 years.

Interestingly, the consulting firm that conducted the study suggested that the first priority should not be something new. It should be making the public aware of what’s already available, in terms of facilities and programs. “The No. 1 reason for not coming” to parks and other venues, the officials heard, “is lack of awareness.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has made residents even more eager for outdoor activities. But the survey found that the area also lags in terms of indoor facilities. As always, pickleball enthusiasts—“picklers”—wanted more courts, outside and inside.

Most discussion focused on the former Ocean Breeze Golf Course property and the Boca Country Club, which will become the new public golf course. One complaint is that the course is in bad shape and is too hard for average golfers. The city must determine what improvements to make and how to use the clubhouse and tennis facility.

Councilman Andy Thomson confirmed contact with someone interested in privately financing an indoor complex at Ocean Breeze. Those 200-plus acres also could accommodate plenty of trails. Or disc golf. District board members want progress on Phase 2 of the outdoor complex on Spanish River Boulevard.

City Manager Leif Ahnell said staff could work up some cost estimates for Boca County Club by late summer. The city takes it over on Oct. 1. I’ll have updates as the city and district decide on options.

Firearms case

I had written about the 1st District Court of Appeal ruling against Boca Raton and other plaintiffs that challenged the penalties elected officials face for approving local firearms regulations. The case may continue.

Those plaintiffs have asked the Florida Supreme Court to hear their argument against the 2011 law. They cite “far-reaching, statewide implications.” Local officials can be subject to as much as $100,000 in civil damages and even removal from office. The case arises out of the 1987 law that pre-empted firearms regulation to the state.

Delray rezonings?

On the agenda for today’s Delray Beach City Commission meeting are rezonings that would help to accommodate the Delray Swan project in Osceola Park.

The four-story residential project—the developers might add other uses—would encompass nine parcels near and along the Florida East Coast Railway. The city has designated Osceola Park as a neighborhood that needs revitalization. Coincidentally, also on the agenda is approval of a roughly $4 million contract for improvements to the neighborhood.

In addition, the commission today will discuss the search for Delray Beach’s next permanent city manager. Jennifer Alvarez has been the interim manager since late last June.   I reported that the human resources department recommended five applicants for consideration. There has been no consensus on how to proceed.