Nursery owners: Fighting unfair rules or ‘a little greedy’?

Western GrowthA tour of Joe Mulvehill’s 39-acre nursery off Happy Hollow Road west of Delray Beach doesn’t just reveal his stock-in-trade — the wide variety of plants and trees in various stages of growth.

No, a tour, with the burly Mulvehill tooling around in a golf cart and drawing on a cigarette (“It’s something I do now,” he said apologetically) reveals a never-ending series of questions and past decisions.

Those plants there, the tall ones? They’re going to have to go. Nobody’s buying them this year. And those dark green ones with the pointy ends? A bacteria got to them. They’ve got to get dumped, too.

» RELATED: Palm Beach County rule changes could spur development

The nursery business is a tough business in southwestern Palm Beach County, and no one knows that better than Mulvehill, a second-generation nurseryman working a sun-baked stretch he both inherited and bought.

The work is a sort of birthright, too. His father, Joe Mulvehill Sr., was a nurseryman. And he worked at his father’s side through high school before joining him full-time when he graduated.

There were good years, nearly a decade of them, when Mulvehill plants could readily be found in malls and doctor’s offices and department stores. But those good times ended nearly 20 years ago, placing Mulvehill, 52, at a difficult crossroads.

Should he keep doing the work his father did, the work he knows and loves so well? Or sell and hope to get enough to make the rest of his days comfortable ones?

That selling isn’t the obvious answer, that he can’t get what he believes he should be able to get for his lands – which lie in the county’s development-restricted Agricultural Reserve – well, don’t get Mulvehill started. It’s enough to make him quiet and reflective. And then cussing mad.

Mulvehill’s perspective, shared by many small landowners in the 22,000-acre reserve located west of Boynton Beach and Delray Beach, is but one that will shape how much and how Palm Beach County grows in the years to come.

Unfair rules?

Mulvehill and other nurserymen believe the county’s Agricultural Reserve rules have unfairly depressed the value of their land by limiting what a potential purchaser could do with it.

Commercial development, for example, is strictly limited in the reserve.

Mulvehill, who bought some of his land in 1995 and inherited a share of another chunk of land when his father died in 2005, said he could sell the development rights to his property for about $80,000 per acre. That would give him about $3.1 million. A developer could use the rights to Mulvehill’s land in meeting the county’s preservation requirement for a project built elsewhere in the reserve.

Mulvehill could take the $3.1 million and retire as a nurseryman, but his tax bill would likely skyrocket. That’s because nurseries are eligible for a land-use designation that allows the land to be assessed at $3,500 per acre — even if its market value is $200,000 or $300,000 per acre. It’s what’s known as an agricultural classified use designation.

No nursery. No agricultural classified use designation. No giant tax break.

Another nurseryman in the Agricultural Reserve, Steve Homrich, wishes he had Mulvehill’s options.

Under current Agricultural Reserve rules, parcels of less than 150 acres that will be used to meet a developer’s preservation requirement must abut other preserve parcels. Mulvehill’s property is next to preserved land; Homrich’s 13 acres is not.

That means Homrich can’t sell his development rights. He could sell his property, but, because it is located west of State Road 7 — where county policymakers are discouraging commercial development — no one interested in building a gas station or small store will buy it.

“My wife and I have our evening discussion about this every day,” Homrich said. “We feel we’ve been wronged in a big way. It’s really a shame what’s been done.”

The county will consider a rule change Thursday that would drop the contiguity requirement, which would allow Homrich to sell development rights to his property. Another proposed change would give additional commercial zoning to some landowners whose property already has some commercial zoning — a prospect that Mulvehill’s sister, Suzanne Mulvehill, said is unfair.

She has said the Ag Reserve is more myth than reality, adding that it should be open to all types of development.

“They should be looking at all the sites that are remaining — whether they had commercial zoning now or not – rather than just granting more commercial zoning to those that have some,” Suzanne Mulvehill said.

Not all land and business owners in the Ag Reserve want to sell their property to developers or support that change. They argue that the rule change would lead to more development in an area where there is already too much development.

Joe O’Donnell, who owns the Irish Acres horse farm west of Delray Beach in the reserve, said he has no intention of selling his 60 acres to developers.

Drew Martin, chairman of the Loxahatchee Group of the Sierra Club, said he’d like to see the county buy out nurserymen like Homrich and Mulvehill.

“They don’t want to be in business,” Martin said. “I don’t think the county ought to sacrifice the Ag Reserve because they don’t want to be in business. When they bought that land, it was ag. And they’ve gotten the tax benefits from that all these years. They knew what the rules were. They just don’t like those rules.”

Sell or stay?

There is a second option available to Joe Mulvehill. He could sell the property and walk away.

In recent years, with stiff competition from large nurseries in Miami-Dade County that are able to sell plants at lower prices, that option has become increasingly appealing.

Digging through a desk in the mobile home that serves as his office, Mulvehill pulled out a faded purchase order showing he got $4 per plant on a sale in 1980. Then, he pointed to a truckload of plants outside that are on their way to a buyer who paid $4.25 per plant.

Since 1980, his labor costs have more than doubled, he said.

“It’s been getting progressively tougher,” Mulvehill said. “I’d sell if the price was right. I can’t handle the stress any more. I’ve lent my business a quarter of a million dollars in the last four years just to keep it afloat.”

Mulvehill estimates that he could get $175,000 per acre if he sold his land to a developer who would build residential property. That would bring him and his family $6.8 million.

Mulvehill, however, believes his property would be able to fetch far more if not for Agricultural Reserve rules limiting commercial development. He estimates that, if a buyer could put up commercial development on his property, he could get $300,000 per acre for it. That would bring him and his family $11.7 million — nearly $5 million more than if he sold to a residential developer.

Martin said too many nurserymen are only concerned about making the most possible money.

“They didn’t pay a lot for the land,” he said. “A lot of it was inherited. Their taxes have been low because it was ag. There’s no justification for people who want a larger payout. These are people who are being a little greedy.”

The criticism that he wants the most possible money for his land galls Mulvehill.

“Everybody wants the biggest possible paycheck,” he said. “Everybody who’s fighting against this is living on what used to be farms. The whole thing’s not fair. It’s not fair for the landowners left in the Ag Reserve. All the big guys sold out. All the little guys are stuck being in the Ag Reserve.”


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