Friday, July 12, 2024

Renewed Threat to Ag Reserve & More on Delray’s Golf Course

After today, Palm Beach County could reach an inflection point on the Agricultural Reserve Area—either way.

At 9:30 a.m., the county commission will hold a workshop meeting—no votes—on the “fundamentals” for preserving the roughly 22,000-acre coastal farm belt west of State Road 7 between Clint Moore Road and Lantana Road. At 1 p.m., the commission will hold a workshop meeting on the proposal to build an 856-unit residential project within the reserve.

Consider these meetings a potential reset. Last November, Republicans Sara Baxter and Marci Woodward unexpectedly won seats on the commission against Democrats who vastly outspent them. Baxter beat Michelle McGovern for the open District 6 seat. Woodward upset incumbent Robert Weinroth in District 4, which includes Boca Raton and Delray Beach.

Through her comments, McGovern had shown a willingness to relax rules on development within the reserve. Through his votes and comments, Weinroth had shown an even greater willingness to do so.

The commission’s membership changed even more in January. District 3 incumbent Dave Kerner resigned after Gov. DeSantis appointed him to run the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Kerner, a Democrat, endorsed DeSantis last year. The governor appointed Michael Barnett, the county’s Republican chairman, to replace Kerner.

As a result, nearly half of the seven commissioners have thin records on the reserve. During their campaigns, Baxter and Woodward expressed skepticism about the proposal to swap land outside the reserve for permission to build 1,000 luxury homes northwest of Boca Raton and 277 workforce housing units elsewhere in the reserve.

The newbies will hear that county voters in 1999 taxed themselves $100 million to buy 2,400 acres for preservation against development that would turn the farm belt into South Florida suburbia. They will hear about all the changes previous commissions approved that weakened the voters’ intent.

They also likely will hear that, despite those changes, the county mostly has achieved that intent. Farming and related uses remain. The balance has not tipped toward suburbia.

Very soon, though, it could.

That residential project, known as Brookside, would be on 78 acres the county bought as part of that 1999 bond plan. The county sold the land in 2006, with severe restrictions on development, including a conservation easement.

In recent years, commissioners who favored more development have noted that the land in question was not part of that original acquisition. The argument misses the point, but they have made it anyway.

Allowing Brookside, though, would set the precedent that all preservation land is up for development. Allow that, and the reserve is gone, opponents of the proposal say. Lisa Interlandi, executive director of the Everglades Law Center, called Brookside “an absolute disaster.”

GL Homes’ land swap would be another dangerous precedent. Developers now only may trade reserve land for development rights within the reserve. GL, however, wants to give up rights on land near West Palm Beach for permission to build those 1,000 homes north on Stonebridge Country Club on the southeastern corner of the reserve.

Meanwhile, other proposals from landowners are taxiing out onto the county approval runway, seeking to take off. These landowners hope to exploit economic conditions.

With housing costs at crisis levels, GL Homes and Brookside promise to build affordable housing. They have support from employers within the reserve who say their workers need to live nearby.

Baxter, Woodward and Barnett might push back on that argument, since the 1999 plan never envisioned the reserve as a primary source of housing. Or they might adopt the cynical sentiment that Weinroth espoused: “Things change.”

I’ll have more after the meetings.

A delay to Delray’s golf course vote?

delray beach golf club
Delray Beach Golf Club

At 4 p.m. today, the Delray Beach City Commission will decide which company gets to renovate the city’s golf course in exchange for developing part of it.

At least, that’s the plan.

Commissioner Ryan Boylston surprised me Monday when he said, “I have pulled my support for” the meeting. Boylston has been the most vocal supporter of the public-private partnership, known as a P3, for the course. He and his colleagues have determined that the city won’t spend the estimated $15 million it would take to renovate the course because there are other, more pressing priorities.

Why did Boylston change? Residents, he said, have had too much to process recently. On the March 14 ballot were two commission races and two property tax bonds, both of which voters approved.

Even though the city has held four public forums to explain the golf course proposals, Boylston said the commission should take more time. If asked to rank the bidders, Boylston said he would do so. But he won’t vote to negotiate with one of them.

Six teams submitted bids. The city eliminated two because they didn’t propose a championship, 18-hole layout. Those left in contention are:

Bobby Jones Links/Mill Creek – The team proposes a renovated clubhouse, 650 residential units—20 percent of them workforce—and 8,000 square feet for restaurant and retail.

Related Group – The company proposes a new, 25,000-square-foot clubhouse, 444 residences—also 20 percent workforce—and 24 villas.

CGHP Developments/Hansel Phelps – The team proposes a 128-room suite hotel, 312 residential units and new clubhouse moved north to Atlantic Avenue.

Heatherwood Luxury Rentals – The company proposes 360 residential units—10 percent of them workforce—a 14,000-square-foot entertainment center, a 7,000-square foot restaurant and a renovated clubhouse.

City Manager Terrence Moore said the city’s consultant, CBRE, will summarize the proposals. After that, there seems to be no script. Moore said the goal is for the commission to “have discussion and offer direction.”

Postponing a vote, as Boylston wants, would mean pushing a decision to the next commission. Juli Casale and Shirley Johnson leave office Thursday, because of an election loss and term limits, respectively.

I’ll have more after the meeting.

A blow to Palm Beach County School District

As if the Palm Beach County School District didn’t have enough things to worry about, last week brought another court ruling favorable to charter schools.

A panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal ruled that the district must pay four charters a portion of the revenue from a property tax that voters approved in 2018. Even though the referendum made clear that the revenue would go only to traditional public schools, charters have gone to court seeking to claim a share of it.

As usual, those charters found a sympathetic ear in Tallahassee. From now on, charters will get a portion of money from such referendums. Last November, voters extended the tax in Palm Beach County. The revenue goes toward special teachers and school police officers.

District officials had argued that the charters would get money from July 1, 2021, and after, citing the date when that law took effect. The two judges in the majority disagreed.

When charters first came to Florida a quarter-century ago, operators claimed that they wouldn’t need any public money. These days, they get a lot of it. The law firm representing the plaintiffs in this case advertises itself as a resource for charter schools, private schools and virtual schools.

Boca’s single-issue election comes in under budget

Critics of Boca Raton’s attempt to lengthen terms for the mayor and city council members argued that it was wasteful to spend money on an election for just one issue. The city had budgeted about $250,000 to hold the election, which at one point would have included races for mayor and two council seats.

Instead, all three were uncontested because only one candidate filed. According to a city spokeswoman, Boca Raton’s actual cost was about $145,000. The city based its estimate, the spokeswoman said, on the cost in 2021, the last city election.

The main reason for the lower cost, the spokeswoman said, was the difference in vote-by-mail ballots. In 2021, there were about 37,000. This year, there were about 10,000.

As I wrote after the Delray Beach election, many voters might have been expecting to receive mail ballots for March as they did for November. But the Legislature changed the law. Voters now must reapply every two years, before the next election cycle. This cycle ends next November.

An update on the Glades interchange

Rendering of the I95 interchange at Glades Road, photo from Florida Department of Transportation

I reported Friday that completion of the Interstate 95 interchange at Glades Road in Boca Raton was delayed a week because of what the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) called an “unforeseen delay.”

After I asked, an FDOT spokeswoman attributed the delay to “an issue with material procurement necessary to complete the weekend operation.” The schedule now calls for the interchange to be closed from 11 p.m. Friday until 5 a.m. Monday, when FDOT says the interchange will open with all four lanes in each direction.

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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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