A tale of two Ag Reserves: Palm Beach County’s vs. one in Maryland

Western GrowthThey are both called an “agricultural reserve.”

Both came into official existence in the early 1980s, when farmers and conservationists across the country began urging local and state governments to preserve farmland.

But Palm Beach County’s Agricultural Reserve, a 22,000-acre farming zone located west of Boynton Beach and Delray Beach, differs in key ways from an agricultural reserve set up in Montgomery County, Md.

Unlike Montgomery County’s reserve, significant chunks of the one here have been developed. Perhaps it’s not unrelated that zoning changes over the years have made development easier in Palm Beach County’s reserve.

Even now, Palm Beach County staff members, following a directive from the county commission, are coming up with a plan to expand commercial zoning in the reserve.

Meanwhile, development in Montgomery County’s 93,000-acre reserve, which covers a stunning 30 percent of that county’s land area, has been made more and more difficult.

In a broad sense, the reserves reflect the political realities of South Florida and suburban Washington, D.C.

Both areas are growing steadily. Montgomery County and Palm Beach County each saw their populations increase by about 6 percent from 2010 to 2014. But successive waves of political officials and staff members in Montgomery County have rebuffed development in their reserve.

The same has not always been the case in Palm Beach County, despite pleas from preservationists who argue that elected officials and staff members are too willing to change the reserve’s rules in ways that favor development.

The debate over Palm Beach County’s reserve is a microcosm of the broader debate about growth in the county.

Residents on both sides of the debate have packed meeting rooms and argued passionately for more development opportunities – or that development is already swallowing up open space and farmland.

Montgomery County’s reserve has been held up for comparison, and a review by The Palm Beach Post has found that, while the reserves have the same broad goal of promoting agriculture and preserving open space, they are different places managed in starkly different ways.

Palm Beach County’s reserve, located in a high-tourism county not far from the ocean, covers less than 2 percent of the county’s total land area. Property owners can build one unit per five acres in the Ag Reserve. In Montgomery County’s reserve, it’s one unit for every 25 acres.

About 29 percent of Palm Beach County’s reserve has been developed for residential or commercial use, according to figures from a recent county presentation. Some 56 percent of the reserve is in conservation or active agricultural use. Canals and right-of-way account for 3 percent of the Ag Reserve, with the rest — just under 2,800 acres — remaining for future use.

No similar breakdown is available for Montgomery County’s reserve, but officials there said the vast majority of the reserve is open space or in some form of agriculture or farming.

When it was established, developers had no love for the Montgomery County reserve.

“Developers consistently complained about the ag reserve,” said Rose Krasnow, deputy director of Montgomery County’s Planning Department. “There was a sense that, ‘Oh, this won’t last. We’ll need that land for development.’ But there has been no headway on that. I don’t hear (complaints) as much from developers any more.”

Montgomery County was sued over its agricultural reserve, but the county won the case. Its reserve is warmly embraced by many in the region and serves as a point of pride for environmentalists and preservationists.

“The Ag Reserve has unquestionably worked and made a huge difference in the persistence of agriculture and ag land in the county,” said Pamela Lindstrom, former land use chair of the Montgomery County Sierra Club. “The law establishing the reserve is imperfect, but I have heard it’s the best in the country, and the countryside around the D.C. suburbs much more rural than any other direction from D.C.”

Lindstrom said even those who don’t like the agricultural reserve have come to a grudging acceptance of it.

“The zoning law and master plan for the Ag Reserve are strong enough that developers do not try to change them directly,” she said.

One major change in the mid-1990s made the climate for development in Palm Beach County’s Ag Reserve much more favorable.

Builders had been required to set aside 80 acres for every 20 they develop, but a new “60-40” option was added in the 1990s allowing builders to set aside 60 acres for every 40 they developed as long as they set aside big chunks for preservation. A builder had to have a minimum of 250 total acres to get started, and 150 of those acres would have to be preserved. If a builder didn’t have a 150-acre chunk, it could get smaller pieces, but those pieces had to be next to other parcels in preservation.

A county document at the time said the new option was created “to protect farmland and to perpetuate the practice of agriculture within the ag reserve area.”

But in the years since that 60-40 option has been available, several development projects have sprung up in the Ag Reserve, and more development could be on the way. On July 30, county commissioners voted to move forward with a plan to drop the requirement that small parcels used for preservation be contiguous to other parcels in preservation. The proposal to eliminate this so-called “contiguity rule” still faces state approval and another vote by the county commission.

At the same meeting, commissioners directed staff members to come up with a plan to expand commercial zoning in the Ag Reserve.

Some farmers and nurserymen had complained that the contiguity rule has unfairly depressed the value of their land, forcing them to continue with unprofitable work and depriving them of opportunities available to the owners of large parcels.

Dropping the contiguity requirement would make more land in the reserve eligible for use as preservation parcels, which, in turn, is expected to lead to more development since builders would have an easier time meeting the new conditions for the 60-40 rule.

Representatives from G.L. Homes, a major landowner in the reserve that has expressed interest in purchasing the 586-acre Whitworth Farms tract off State Road 7, attended the meeting and spoke on behalf of the proposed change.

Commissioners have said that, with population growth a fact of life in Palm Beach County, some changes to accommodate that growth are necessary. They have also said the changes won’t lead to more development than was anticipated in the Ag Reserve’s comprehensive plan.

Commissioner Priscilla Taylor, who voted to move forward with the pro-development changes, said the barn door to development in the Agricultural Reserve had been opened long ago.

“I think when the other commissioners before our time first allowed changes to be made to ag, it sort of opened it up,” Taylor said. “So what we’re stuck with are the unintended consequences of that decision then. I think it’s going to be incumbent upon us at some point to decide how we are going to handle the bigger picture of this.”

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