EXCLUSIVE: Ex-commish Aaronson lobbies protege on GL Homes Ag Reserve plan

Updated June 12, 2017
Palm Beach County Commissioner Mary Lou Berger (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

Palm Beach County Commissioner Mary Lou Berger, who has raised the ire of a powerful coalition of residential associations for refusing to oppose a GL Homes plan for more development in the Agricultural Reserve, has been lobbied on the issue by her former boss, Burt Aaronson.

Palm Beach County lobbyist registration documents indicate Aaronson, signed on to lobby for GL on May 9. Berger now holds the commission seat once held by Aaronson, who remains a powerful Democratic activist in south county with a long record of working with GL Homes when he served as a commissioner.

Construction and landscaping firms that did business with GL poured thousands of dollars into at least one of Aaronson’s political campaigns. GL spent huge sums underwriting some of Aaronson’s pet projects, and it hired his daughter-in-law, a move an assistant county attorney said did not violate state ethics laws.

Berger worked as Aaronson’s senior administrative assistant for 18 years before winning her former boss’ seat in 2012. She said Aaronson’s lobbying for GL “hasn’t had any effect on my thinking.”

Former Palm Beach County commissioner Burt Aaronson signed on to lobby for GL Homes on May 9, according to Palm Beach County lobbyist registration documents. Here he sits in his nearly-bare office on November 15, 2012 as he prepares to end his career as a county commissioner. (Richard Graulich/The Palm Beach Post) Photo: Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

GL wants the county to change the rules of the Agricultural Reserve, a 22,000-acre farming and conservation zone west of Boynton Beach and Delray Beach, to allow the developer to build more homes on property it owns there. In exchange, according to a recent GL Homes proposal, the developer would agree to preserve some land in the Acreage/Loxahatchee area where it has county permission to build 3,900 homes on 4,900 acres it owns in a development proposed as Indian Trails Grove.

County rules for the reserve require builders to set aside 60 acres in the reserve for every 40 they wish to develop there. Developers have not been allowed to use land outside of the reserve to meet preservation requirements in the reserve.

Over time, those requirements — aimed at protecting agricultural interests in an area noted for its unique climate and soil — have slowed development.

Homes west of Delray Beach and Boynton Beach would likely fetch more money than homes built in The Acreage/Loxahatchee area, but GL Vice President Larry Portnoy has said the builder’s plans aren’t simply about selling homes for more money.

GL has already built developments in the Agricultural Reserve and wants to continue to work in an area where it has established a footprint and where roads and sewer services are already in place, Portnoy said.

Opponents of GL’s plan argue it would unlock development in the reserve, leading to over-development there.

The powerful Coalition of Boynton West Residential Associations has come out in opposition to the plan, but Berger has, so far, refused to take a position.

Her position could be key if, as expected, the GL plan is formally put before the county commission later this year.

One commissioner, Melissa McKinlay, has already said she likes the idea of less development in The Acreage/Loxahatchee area. Some of McKinlay’s constituents there have complained that development projects could clog local roads and change their rural way of life.

Commissioners Steven Abrams and Hal Valeche have not taken a position on the GL plan, but they have been open to development projects in the past as a way to accommodate and manage growth.

County Mayor Paulette Burdick has frequently spoken out against development pressure in the Agricultural Reserve.

Two new commissioners, Mack Bernard and Dave Kerner, also have raised concerns about over-development. Both attended a packed meeting last week in Boynton Beach, when COBWRA rallied 400 residents in opposition to GL’s plan.

If Burdick, Bernard and Kerner vote against the plan and McKinlay, Abrams and Valeche back it, that would mean Berger would have the deciding vote.

Berger, who does not face a re-election battle because of term limits, has said she takes a dim view of development west of State Road 7, where some of GL’s property in the Ag Reserve is located. But she said Monday she has taken no position on the GL plan at this point, despite pleas from COBWRA, whose president, Myrna Rosoff, has said the organization is mounting an “all-out battle” to prevent the GL plan from winning approval.

Aaronson has tried to sway his former assistant.

“Yes, he has spoken to me once about this,” Berger said, adding that she has heard from different sides on the issue.

Berger said she is not doing Aaronson’s bidding.

“I would hope the constituency has seen my work and have come to realize that I’m an independent thinker,” she said.

Aaronson wasn’t eager to discuss his work for GL.

“I have no comment to make,” he said. “I act as consultant.”

Asked if he was putting his former staffer in a difficult position by asking her to back a project opposed by COBWRA, Aaronson said: “Any decision you make in land use is always a difficult decision. There are always some people in support of it and some people in opposition. I think it’s a good project.”

COBWRA represents 125,000 south county residents, many of whom are politically active and willing to write a campaign check. The organization is a potent force, as evidenced by its ability to draw 400 people to its meeting last week despite a pounding rainstorm and long car lines.

Berger, who had committed to speaking at a political function that was canceled because of the rain, did not attend the COBWRA meeting, a fact angrily noted by some who did.

“I’m very disappointed that Mary Lou Berger is not here because this is her district,” said Dagmar Brahs, a COBWRA past president.

Fred Silverman, another south county resident, added: “I do not believe she represents us.”

Rosoff said COBWRA remains hopeful Berger will help it oppose the GL plan.

“Commissioner Berger has always been supportive of COBWRA’s policy of supporting the Ag Reserve,” she said. “Of course, we’re aware of her past history with Burt Aaronson, but we have no doubt that she will put the interests of her constituents first.”