Palm Beach County commissioners approved a new zoning framework Thursday, smoothing the path for a pair of development projects that would add a combined 4,930 homes in the booming west-central corridor of the county.
Approval of the new framework, which creates something called the Western Communities Residential Overlay, disappointed environmentalists and preservationists, who have argued that large-scale development projects in the area threaten the environment, devour open space and intensify traffic congestion.
“The commission is reluctant to stop this development, but I really think long term it’s going to cost you a lot of money if you don’t vote no on this,” said Drew Martin, conservation chair of the Loxahatchee Group of the Sierra Club.
Commissioners didn’t vote no. The new framework was approved on a 6-0 vote, with Commissioner Dave Kerner absent.
Commissioners argued that approving the new framework isn’t the same as giving final approval to the intensely debated projects — the 3,900-unit Indian Trails Grove project and the 1,030-unit Iota Carol project, also known as Delray Linton Groves even though it lies west of the Acreage in the north end of the county whereas Delray Beach is at the south end.
“We are not approving any zoning today,” Commissioner Melissa McKinlay said.
Commissioners have already voted in favor of comprehensive plan changes for Indian Trails Grove, a GL Homes project. Those changes have been reviewed by state government officials and received final approval by the county.
The county’s Zoning Commission and then the County Commission will consider zoning requests associated with the project next month.
Iota Carol is behind Indian Trails Grove in the approval process, and its fate is less certain.
In October, commissioners gave initial approval to comprehensive plan changes for Iota Carol. But in January, with two of the commissioners who voted in favor of those changes succeeded by others more wary of the project, commissioners postponed a final vote.
McKinlay, whose district includes the Iota Carol site, said in October that she is “concerned” about the combined impacts of Iota Carol and another, nearby development project, Westlake.
“This part of the district, it needs time to breathe,” McKinlay said then.
Iota Carol’s comprehensive plan changes and then its zoning requests would have to get final approval before the project could move forward.
Some environmentalists and preservationists worry that the new zoning framework presages final approval for Iota Carol and Indian Trails Grove.
“Obviously, we oppose these projects,” Martin said. “Wouldn’t it be great not to approve this? And then you can’t approve these developments.”
Martin then answered his earlier question.
“It seems to me that Palm Beach County is heading down a path of no return, and that’s a continued move west,” he said.
Alex Larson, a Loxahatchee resident and frequent critic of the county, fired away.
“This is a horrible thing for our county,” she said.
Larson noted that the upcoming Mayor’s Ball, a charity event scheduled for April 1 at the Palm Beach County Convention Center, is being sponsored by GL Homes, which requested the new zoning framework.
“That makes me sick to my stomach,” she said.
The ball raises money to help the county’s homeless population, which McKinlay noted in pushing back against Larson’s insinuation of an inappropriate connection between GL Homes and the event.
“It’s hard to beat us up when we’re trying to raise money for the homeless,” she said.
Commissioner Mary Lou Berger mentioned a story in The Palm Beach Post about continued growth in the county.
U.S. Census Bureau figures show the county picked up nearly 22,000 new residents from July 2015 to July 2016.
Commissioners have often cited that growth and the scarcity of affordable housing as reasons to approve new housing development projects.