GL Homes withdraws controversial Ag Reserve development plan

GL Homes has withdrawn its application for a controversial development plan in Palm Beach County’s Agricultural Reserve, ending — for now — a battle that had already begun to divide the county.

GL’s decision came Thursday, one day before the builder was to make a presentation to the county’s Planning Commission, the first step in its bid to win final approval from county commissioners.

GL’s plan called for permission to build more in the Ag Reserve in exchange for the builder’s promise to preserve land in its Indian Trails Grove tract in the midwestern county. It drew intense opposition from south county residents who saw it as a traffic-clogging money grab that would lead to the demise of the reserve, while it was generally supported by residents of the Acreage and Loxahatchee.

The Coalition of Boynton West Residential Associations and its president, Myrna Rosoff, led the opposition, flooding the in-boxes of commissioners to make their case.

GL countered, mounting a similar campaign to convince commissioners of the merits of the plan.

In a letter withdrawing its application, however, the builder said it needed more time to make its case.

“While we have worked diligently over the past many months and have gathered support for this proposal, we believe more time is needed so that we can continue to work with staff and others in outlining the merits and community benefits this proposal provides,” GL Vice President Kevin Ratterree wrote to county staff members.

Withdrawing the plan instead of having commissioners reject it preserves for GL the option of re-submitting some altered version of it, something the builder can do at any time. If commissioners had rejected the plan, GL would have had to wait two years before it could re-submit the proposal.

Large-scale development plans are frequently topics of intense debate in the county, but GL’s plan was more intensely debated than most.

Last year, GL got county permission to build a 3,900-home Indian Trails Grove on 4,900 acres it owns in the Acreage/Loxahatchee area. Residents of that area were displeased by the prospect of so many homes being built in their semi-rural area. GL’s promise to help solve the area’s flooding problems by providing land for a reservoir mollified some, but other midwest county residents still viewed the plan as one that would bring increased traffic and development.

After receiving county permission for Indian Trails Grove, GL changed course this year, announcing an ambitious and controversial plan to preserve those 4,900 acres in exchange for rule changes that would allow it to build 3,900 homes in the Agricultural Reserve, a 22,000-acre farming and conservation zone located west of Boynton Beach and Delray Beach.

The builder said its new plan offered numerous benefits: donated land for public schools, parks and the northwestern reservoir it had previously promised; the limitation of its development to an area of the county where GL had already established a footprint; and the preservation of land for agriculture where, unlike on Ag Reserve tracts to the south, farmers would not have to co-exist with subdivisions.

Ag Reserve farmers hoping to sell their land at top dollar and northwest county residents cheered the new proposal. South county residents, however, were immediately mobilized into opposition.

COBWRA held meetings and hired a prominent land-use lawyer, a move that held out the specter of an expensive, drawn-out legal battle.

Political battle lines also emerged.

Commissioner Paulette Burdick joined with COBWRA members in arguing that more building in the Ag Reserve would decimate it. County Mayor Melissa McKinlay said she saw merit in providing development relief for her constituents in the midwest county.

Two commissioners, Hal Valeche and Steven Abrams, had backed development proposals in the past and did not dismiss GL’s plan outright, though neither man took a formal position on it. The two newest members of the commission, Mack Bernard and Dave Kerner, attended COBWRA meetings and expressed concern about development pressure on the Ag Reserve.

Bernard and Kerner also did not take formal positions on GL’s plan, but if they joined with Burdick in opposing it and McKinlay joined with Valeche and Abrams in supporting it, that would leave Mary Lou Berger as the swing vote on the seven-member commission.

Berger’s former boss of 18 years, former commissioner Burt Aaronson, lobbied her on GL’s behalf to back the plan. Against the wishes of her south county constituents, who wanted her to oppose the plan, Berger refused to take a public position on it.

Thursday, after news broke of GL’s decision to withdraw the plan, she said she had not told the developer how she would vote.

“I never took a public position,” Berger said. “I never told them one way or another. I had not reached a conclusion.”

Absent any clear indication from commissioners, it remains a mystery why GL withdrew its plan. Those who closely followed the debate offered theories — that GL did not want to see the Planning Commission reject its plan and that GL is waiting out possible changes in the commission or COBWRA leadership.

Efforts to reach GL for comment beyond its letter of withdrawal were unsuccessful Thursday.

Whatever its reasoning, GL’s decision to withdraw the plan elicited relief from those who opposed it.

“I’m pleased that they withdrew their proposal,” Burdick said. “Clearly, the public was not in support of their proposal.”

Lisa Interlandi, senior attorney with the Everglades Law Center, said: “I think it was the right decision. I think their proposal as submitted would have decimated the Ag Reserve.”

McKinlay said she doesn’t view GL’s decision as a negative.

“Any time a developer wants to review their proposals to take community comments into consideration is a good thing,” she said. “I believe they’ll come back at some point with a revised plan.”

McKinlay said she still believes the plan had merit, particularly in setting aside large chunks of land for farming.

“At some point, we need to consider protecting other areas of farmland in our county that aren’t restricted by encroaching development,” she said. “The western part of The Acreage is one of those areas. I look forward to seeing future revisions to these proposals by GL Homes.”

Rosoff said that’s precisely what she doesn’t want to see — another plan for more building in the Ag Reserve, though she acknowledged that possibility still exists.

“I do not think this is gone and forgotten,” she said.

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