Ag Reserve owners seeking commercial-development right get partial win

Three property owners seeking the right to have commercial development on their land in the Agricultural Reserve got a victory Friday when the Palm Beach County Planning Commission approved their requests for land use rule changes.

But it was a partial victory.

The property owners — Melissa McKeown’s Delray Growers, farmer Jim Alderman and nursery owners Steve and Rose Homrich — must still set aside six acres for preservation for every four they develop, a stipulation they said will make commercial development of their land exceedingly difficult.

That “60-40” rule has long governed development in the Agricultural Reserve, a 22,000-acre farming zone located west of Boynton Beach and Delray Beach. As more and more land in the reserve is developed or purchased, getting parcels for preservation is an increasingly expensive proposition — and that, in turn, makes commercial development tougher.

“It makes it pretty much impossible to do with the way it’s set up right now,” said Homrich, who, like McKeown and Alderman, argued that their land is surrounded by commercial or industrial businesses that are incompatible with agriculture.

The Planning Commission serves as an advisor to the County Commission, which will take up the requests when it meets on Jan. 27.

County commissioners will also take a look at a staff-generated land use plan that would allow developers to set aside less than 40 percent of a project’s land for preservation if their projects include affordable housing.

The Planning Commission expressed little love for that idea Friday, saying the Agricultural Reserve isn’t the place to push for a solution to the county’s affordable housing crunch.

On that front, planning commissioners were in agreement with environmentalists and preservationists.

Environmentalists and preservationists opposed the Alderman, Homrich and McKeown requests, saying that county approval would set a precedent that will encourage others to seek similar changes.

“This is a huge re-write of the Ag Reserve policies,” said Lisa Interlandi, senior attorney for the Everglades Law Center.

Interlandi and others opposed to the land use requests said it was critical that the preservation requirements remain in effect.

“If you take that out, all you do is provide a benefit to private property owners with no public benefit,” Interlandi said.

That’s not how the Homriches see it.

Rose Homrich told planning commissioners that when she and her husband purchased the land in the 1980s there were few restrictions on its use.

“We could have done anything back in 1985,” she said.

Later, however, after the Agricultural Reserve was established and tighter land use rules were put in place, she and her husband lost the ability to do anything other than build a couple houses on the property or continue on as nursery owners.

“I want my rights restored,” she said. “They were taken away from me. It’s a basic American right.”

McKeown, who inherited 11 acres at the northeast corner of Atlantic Avenue and Smith Sunday Road, said she has been forced to pay $4,218 per year for a water main that was installed in 2005 to support commercial development. Meanwhile, land use restrictions in the Agricultural Reserve prevent her from having commercial development on her property.

“The water line is of no use with what I’m allowed to do on the property now,” she said.

Alderman, a longtime farmer who owns 15 acres at the northeast corner of Boynton Beach Boulevard and Lyons Road, said he simply wants to sell his property and use the proceeds to purchase a packing plant closer to his farming operations off State Road 7.

His current packing plant is out-dated, he said, and his neighbors are less than thrilled to be located next to a farming operation.

“Our neighbors really don’t like us,” Alderman said, telling planning commissioners that fulfilling his request would help him improve his farming operation.

“If you want to enhance agriculture, here’s a way to do it,” he said.

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