Planning commissioner quits, citing GL Homes plan, other development

Oct 20, 2017
Aerial photograph showing part of the Palm Beach County Agricultural Reserve in 2002, looking north along State Road 7 between Atlantic Avenue west of Delray Beach to Boynton Beach Boulevard west of Boynton Beach. (Jennifer Podis/The Palm Beach Post)

A member of the Palm Beach County Planning Commission has resigned, citing frustration with large-scale development projects that have been recommended by the commission.

Domenic R. Guarnagia’s resignation comes two months before the Planning Commission takes up a controversial development proposal from GL Homes, which wants the county to change the rules of its Agricultural Reserve so GL can build more on land the developer owns there. GL’s plan calls for it to preserve 4,900 acres it had previously planned to develop in the Acreage/Loxahatchee area.

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In his resignation letter, dated Oct. 3, Guarnagia specifically mentions GL Homes, saying the developer’s “interest is in building in spite of corrupting acres of productive farmland and greatly reducing the acreage of land that could otherwise benefit us all.”

Guarnagia, a retired architect and urban planner for Boston who now lives in Wellington, wrote that “frustration and inaction has overwhelmed me” and “I have no way of fighting the proposed changes.”

He reiterated much of what he said in his resignation letter in an email Thursday to The Palm Beach Post but also said preserving the Agricultural Reserve as a large mass of arable land is critical for two reasons: the large percentage of winter vegetables that it produces for the U.S. and its role in absorbing huge amounts of rainfall through percolation. He also noted that he was especially frustrated when the County Commission decided to approve development projects that both the zoning staff and a majority of the Planning Commission had recommended denying.

GL Homes officials declined to comment about Guarnagia’s resignation.

The 15-member Planning Commission serves as an advisory body to the County Commission, which makes the final decision on development projects like the one proposed by GL Homes.

Guarnagia was appointed by County Mayor Paulette Burdick, who has consistently opposed large-scale development projects as threats to open space, the environment and agriculture.

Burdick said Guarnagia “is going to be hard to replace,” though she wants to have a successor chosen before GL’s proposal is presented to the Planning Commission in December.

That proposal has drawn fierce opposition and support, with both sides mounting an email campaign aimed at swaying county commissioners and accusing the other side of distorting various aspects of the debate.

South county residents say approving GL’s plan would fundamentally change the Ag Reserve, a 22,000-acre farming and conservation zone west of Boynton Beach and Delray Beach dotted with high-end residential subdivisions.

Residents in those subdivisions have argued that more building in their area would worsen traffic congestion, depress the value of their homes and threaten agriculture.

COBWRA, the Coalition of Boynton West Residential Associations, has led the fight against GL’s plan, holding meetings and urging residents — many of whom live in GL-built houses — to press county commissioners to oppose the proposal.

GL’s plan has the support of north county residents who don’t want to see the builder’s 4,900-acre Indian Trails Grove tract developed, even though the County Commission has already approved a zoning framework for 3,900 homes there. Like south county residents, they say more development in The Acreage/Loxahatchee area would increase traffic and destroy the semi-rural lifestyle residents moved to the area to enjoy.

Some farmers have also backed GL’s plan, arguing that agriculture would be served better by having farming operations in located in an area removed from busy residential subdivisions.

It’ll be up to county commissioners to weigh those arguments. As they do, several questions will be key, including:

Opponents of GL’s plan note that voters approved the sale of bonds whose proceeds were used to purchase land for agriculture and preservation. Allowing more development in the Ag Reserve would fly in the face of the intent of voters who backed those moves, they say. And, they argue, allowing GL to preserve land outside of the Ag Reserve to facilitate development within it — something current rules prohibit — opens the door to other developers who want to do the same thing.

Others, however, note that some of the land purchased with bond money has already been sold — to farmers. They also point out that GL’s plan would allow a vast, consolidated piece of land to be preserved, a stance very much in keeping with the mindset of voters who backed that bond sale to protect open space and agriculture.