GL Homes wants to move giant project from Acreage to Ag Reserve

GL Homes wants Palm Beach County to consider a proposal that would allow it to unlock development in the Agricultural Reserve, a south-county farming zone where building is limited by county rules but home sales are lucrative.

RELATED: Former commissioner Tony Masilotti rips county in comments on GL Homes plan

Instead of moving forward with recently approved plans to build a giant development of 3,900 homes on the 4,900-acre Indian Trails Grove tract it owns west of The Acreage, the well-connected developer proposes building in the Ag Reserve, and using Indian Trails Grove land, which lies outside of the reserve, to meet strict county rules requiring 60 acres to be set aside for every 40 acres that are developed.

Land outside of the Agricultural Reserve cannot be used to meet preservation requirements for development in the reserve.

Those rules have made it increasingly difficult to build in the Ag Reserve, where GL has made its mark with upscale housing developments such as Valencia Cove and Seven Bridges. Such large-scale projects would be tough to build now because much of the Ag Reserve’s land is developed, farmed or in preservation.

“It’s slim pickings out there now,” GL Vice President Larry Portnoy said.

GL’s proposal was unveiled Wednesday during a meeting of the Agricultural Enhancement Council and later that night at an Indian Trail Improvement District Board meeting.

The proposal would require changes to the county’s comprehensive plan, and GL Homes hopes to get support from those two groups before taking the plan to the county. The agricultural council makes recommendations to the county on farming issues, and the improvement district oversees water and road management near GL’s 4,900-acre tract.

The improvement district board voted to send the county a letter supporting the proposal, while the agricultural council postponed voting on whether or not to recommend the plan.

GL doesn’t plan to approach the county formally until December, when it makes a presentation to the Planning Commission. County commissioners could be asked to consider the plan in January.

Even in its infancy, the idea has drawn opposition from environmentalists and preservationists, who have argued that the 22,000-acre Agricultural Reserve — west of Delray Beach and Boynton Beach — is already under too much development pressure.

Nearly everything about the reserve — how much residential and commercial development should be allowed, whether its agricultural production could or should be achieved elsewhere — stimulates intense debate, and GL’s idea is certain to follow that pattern.

If the plan makes its way to commissioners, they could again find themselves squeezed between powerful forces they’d rather please — a deep-pocketed, powerful developer on one side, and on the other, vocal environmentalists and preservationists and perhaps the influential Coalition of Boynton West Residential Associations.

COBWRA’s president, Myrna Rosoff, expressed concern at the agricultural council meeting about the prospect of additional development in the reserve.

“You have homeowner after homeowner sold on an expectation that density would be controlled,” she told Portnoy.

Drew Martin, conservation chair of the Loxahatchee group of the Sierra Club, agreed.

“I don’t think the people who live out there want to see more development,” he said.

But Portnoy argued that the plan has significant benefits, principally in expanding the amount of acreage available for preservation in the county and offering some farmers an opportunity to move away from operations in areas where they must co-exist with residential developments.

“Farming consolidates into large, contiguous areas on the Indian Trails property,” he said.

Supporters of the Agricultural Reserve say its unique soil and climate make it especially well-suited for winter crop production. The county, they argue, would be well advised to make sure it can remain a major producer of agriculture in the years ahead as climate change threatens other sources of production.

Arthur Kirstein, agriculture economics development coordinator for the Palm Beach County Cooperative Extension Service, said production wouldn’t fall off if crops are grown on the Indian Trails Grove tract instead of in the Ag Reserve.

“It’s 19 miles away, for God’s sakes,” he said.

Homes sold in the Agricultural Reserve would fetch more than those sold on the Indian Trails Grove tract, Portnoy said, but that doesn’t necessarily mean GL Homes would take in more profit from them. Home buyers in the reserve would likely expect more expensive-to-build amenities than buyers elsewhere, he said.

GL isn’t pursuing the plan simply as a means of making more money, Portnoy said, adding that the developer wants to continue building in an area where it has established a footprint.

Those areas are already more prepared for additional development than areas near The Acreage, Portnoy argued at the agricultural council meeting.

“Stress is reduced on Acreage infrastructure,” he said.

On its way to having its Indian Trails Grove project approved this past year, GL promised to give the Indian Trail Improvement District a 600-plus acre tract the district can use to build a reservoir and alleviate some of its drainage problems.

Portnoy said GL would honor that commitment if its new proposal is approved.

Still, the proposal is a long way from formal consideration and an even longer way from approval.

Lisa Interlandi, senior attorney for the Everglades Law Center, urged all involved to proceed with caution.

“As much as I’d like to see less development in the northern part of the county, I have real concerns with this,” she said.

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