Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Is This the End of Palm Beach County’s Agricultural Reserve?

The end of South Florida’s only coastal farm belt isn’t here yet. But you can see it coming.

Last week, the Palm Beach County Commission held a workshop meeting on the future of the Agricultural Reserve Area, west of Boca Raton, Delray Beach and Boynton Beach. Based on the discussion, that future has the reserve looking much more like the rest of South Florida.

When voters in 1999 taxed themselves $100 million for bonds to preserve farming and related activities within the 20,000 acres of the reserve, they entrusted future commissions to treat the area differently. Suburban-type development would be limited. Projects would have to preserve more land than they consumed. That was the understanding.

Open land, though, is a developer’s natural resource. From the start, developers have pushed for changes to allow more building. Landowners have pushed for changes to make it more lucrative to sell to developers.

Two decades later, I sense that the tipping point conservationists feared—after the county made many small changes—has come. During last week’s discussion, a majority of the commission indicated a willingness to make the reserve more like the rest of South Florida.

“Things have changed,” said Commissioner Melissa McKinlay. The county needs to acknowledge that change, she said. Maria Sachs, who represents the reserve, said her constituents within and near the reserve want “amenities.” Why should they have to “drive east” to visit a park or eat at a deli?

The point, of course, is that adding enough of those amenities would make this farm belt into another collection of strip malls. People bought homes with the understanding that not every suburban comfort would be five miles away. But those homes have turned over and today’s residents want more.

No one wanted to say directly that the goal is to undercut what the voters wanted. That would be too obvious. One developer said, “We’re not here to overhaul the reserve.” Actually, that’s the goal.

Commissioners look at all that open land and see the reserve as the place for affordable housing, admittedly a countywide need. They speak of creating sustainable communities where residents can walk to work.

Those are good ideas. They just don’t mesh with the goal of preserving farming. But momentum is shifting.

Danielle Hartman is CEO of Ruth & Norman Rales Jewish Family Services in Boca Raton. In a letter to the commission, Hartman said, “Older adults living on fixed incomes already cannot keep up with inflation, and projections about the possible future increase in homeless seniors as a result of the lack of affordable options needs to be addressed now, before a more significant program develops.

“I believe there were good intentions over 20 years ago when the master plan (for the reserve) was originally developed, but so much has changed in our community over that time, including the significant increase in older adults currently residing in the Ag Reserve.” Hartman asked the commission to “consider changing” the plan.

Robert Weinroth, who represents Boca Raton and Delray Beach, praised Sachs’ comments. He said the commission needs to be “sensitive to the needs of our residents.” The reserve, he said, must help solve the affordable housing program that the commission has created in part by not being tougher on developers. Weinroth paid tribute to the past. Then he said that it’s time for change.

Highland Beach fire results

delray
Photo courtesy Delray Beach Fire Rescue

Nearly 90 percent of Highland Beach voters said Tuesday that they want their own fire department. What does that mean for Delray Beach, which has been providing the service?

The vote means that, in May 2024, Delray Beach won’t need the 22 firefighters who work shifts in the Highland Beach station. Chief Keith Tomey hopes to retain all those who want to stay by not filling other open positions. City Manager Terrence Moore, though, may have other ideas.

It also means that Delray Beach will need another fire station east of the Intracoastal Waterway in addition to the one on Andrews Avenue. Tomey has said that a backup is necessary if a unit has to go west. That will be a city commission discussion. Any construction money might be in the general obligation bond that the commission will discuss in 2022.

Another big gift to BRRH

Boca Raton Regional Hospital. Photo by Aaron Bristol.

Two longtime donors to Boca Raton Regional Hospital have made another major contribution.

According to a news release, Michelle and Michael Hagerty added a $5 million gift to previous donations of $3.5 million. The latest contribution will name the hospital’s residency program after the Hagertys. Boca Regional is the teaching hospital for the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine at Florida Atlantic University.

Boca Regional now has raised $212 million toward its capital campaign goal of $250 million.

WSU controversy has a Boca connection

football
Photo by Dave Adamson on Unsplash

There’s a familiar Boca Raton name in the controversy involving Washington State University’s football coach.

Nick Rolovich refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19. That violated the mandate for all state employees to get the vaccine. So the athletic director fired Rolovich and four assistant coaches who also refused.

The athletic director is Pat Chun. Before starting at Washington State in early 2018, Chun held the same position at Florida Atlantic University. Washington State credits Chun with, among other things, increasing athletic department fundraising and starting mental health programs for athletes.

An attorney for the fired coach said Rolovich intends to challenge his firing, alleging “discriminatory and vindictive behavior” by Chun. Rolovich claims that the firing violated his “devout Catholic” faith. Pope Francis has encouraged all Roman Catholics to be vaccinated. The pope got his first shot of the vaccine last January.

Broken Sound tournament goes green

country club

This weekend’s PGA Champions Tour event at Broken Sound’s Old Course will feature something that has nothing to do with golf.

Name sponsor TimberTech, which makes products for decks and other outdoor structures, has pledged that the event will generate zero landfill waste. Organizers will use Broken Sound’s composing system for organic matter. All plastic material will go to one of the company’s factories. According to a news release, it takes between 30,000 and 40,000 plastic bags to make just 300 square feet of deck material.

The event takes place Friday through Sunday.

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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