Every night, Steve Homrich and his wife, Rose, ask themselves a simple question: Why can’t we sell our land to a developer or develop it ourselves?
The answer has always been equally simple: because the Homrich land is in the Palm Beach County Agricultural Reserve, and the strict and complicated rules of that farming zone limit what owners can do with their property.
Soon, though, some of those rules could be changed again for the Agricultural Reserve, the 22,000-acre region west of Boynton Beach and Delray Beach that has been the epicenter of an intense, ongoing battle pitting preservation against development in the county.
Homrich and two other land owners — Jim Alderman and Delray Growers — have asked the county to change the land use plan for the Agricultural Reserve to allow commercial development on their parcels. Their requests come on the heels of a push by a majority of Palm Beach County commissioners for more commercial development in the reserve.
On Friday, the county Planning Commission will consider the three request along with a county staff proposal that would allow developers to set aside less land for preservation if their projects in the reserve include affordable housing.
The Planning Commission serves as an advisory body to the County Commission, which will have final say on the proposed changes. The County Commission is scheduled to discuss the proposed changes when it meets on Jan. 27.
Current rules for development in the Agricultural Reserve require builders to set 60 acres aside for preservation if they wish to develop 40 acres. Under the staff proposal, that 60-40 rule would remain in place with the exception that commercial builders would be able to set aside less than 60 acres if their 40-acre project includes affordable housing.
Precisely how much less than 60 acres has not been determined yet, said Patrick Rutter, deputy director of the county’s Planning Division.
The goal, according to documents prepared in advance of Friday’s meeting, is to encourage the construction of affordable housing at a time when it is increasingly difficult to find in the county.
But environmentalists and preservationists say the changes would be yet another blow to a system of rules that were supposed to limit development and encourage farming in the Agricultural Reserve. And while some said they agree that there is a need for affordable housing, they argue that the reserve, lauded for its rich soil and warm winter temperatures, is too valuable as a farming zone and as a buffer for the Everglades to serve as a development hub.
Lisa Interlandi, senior attorney for the Everglades Law Center, said approving the three applications for land use changes in the reserve would make it impossible for the county to refuse the requests of other landowners there who also want to sell to commercial developers.
“When you change the rules for one, you have to change the rules for others,” she said. “The county can’t be arbitrary. Once the rules are changed, they are changed. Once a precedent is set, it’s set.”
Delray Growers is seeking the change for about 11 acres it owns at the northeast corner of Atlantic Avenue and Smith Sunday Road.
Jim Alderman, who wants the change for the 15 acres at the northeast corner of Boynton Beach Boulevard and Lyons Road where his farming operation’s packing plant is located, said too much is made of the primacy of the Agricultural Reserve’s role in farming in Palm Beach County. He said there are thousands of acres being farmed elsewhere that will continue to be farmed. And he noted that, despite its name, much of the Agricultural Reserve is not dedicated to farming.
About 44 percent of the Agricultural Reserve is not being used for conservation or agriculture, including 29 percent that has already been developed for residential and commercial use.
Alderman said he wants to sell his land and move his packing plant, which is surrounded by commercial development.
“We’re kind of like a hole in the doughnut,” he said.
The area, he said, is no longer conducive to farming.
“When we bought this land, Boynton Beach Boulevard was two lanes, and we saw a car every 20 minutes,” he said. “Now, it’s bumper to bumper.”
Agricultural Reserve rules do not prevent landowners like Alderman from selling their property. But their land would fetch a better price if rules restricting its use are loosened.
Homrich, who owns 13 acres north of Boynton Beach Boulevard and west of State Road 7, has made that push for years. He did not return telephone calls seeking comment in this story, but, in an interview with The Palm Beach Post in June, he decried what he described as the unfairness of the rules of the Agricultural Reserve.
“We feel we’ve been wronged in a big way,” Homrich said then. It’s really a shame what’s been done.”
Drew Martin, conservation chairman of the Loxahatchee Group of the Sierra Club, said the county should not feel obligated to maximize profits for landowners chafing under the land use restrictions that govern their property.
He said many of those landowners have paid lower taxes over the years because their property was designated as agricultural. Now, he said, those landowners are in a position to have pocketed those tax savings and reap a windfall if the county loosens rules that would make their property more valuable.
Alderman counters that argument by pointing out that the county’s tax base would receive a significant boost if his land is developed.
County Commissioner Paulette Burdick, who has consistently opposed rule changes that could lead to more development in the reserve, said she opposes this set of proposals as well.
“This area has been studied and designated for 30 years for agriculture,” she said. “We need to keep it preserved for agriculture.”