Palm Beach County Commission faces Agricultural Reserve dilemma: Preserve or develop?


Preservationists and development interests are digging in for another fight over the future of Palm Beach County’s Agricultural Reserve, the 22,000-acre enclave prized for its fertile farmland west of Boynton Beach and Delray Beach.

Both sides are planning to pack the sixth floor of the Palm Beach County Governmental Center on Tuesday when county commissioners hold a workshop to consider allowing more commercial development on land set aside for farming and agriculture.

“It’s just time to sit down and take a look at it,’’ said County Commissioner Mary Lou Berger, who called for the workshop in December. “I’m not saying we should develop and I’m not saying we should not develop. I’m saying we need to have dialogue about it.’’

But people who have fought to preserve the Ag Reserve fear the dialogue will lead to changes that contradict the intent of a 1999 voter-approved referendum to spend $100 million on 2,400 acres of farmland, which the county now leases back to farmers.

They want the county stand up to increasing development pressure and keep intact strict rules that require owners to set aside 60 percent to 80 percent of their property for agricultural uses or conservation.

“The people of Palm Beach County made a $100 million commitment. The county commissioners need to stick to their commitment of keeping the Ag Reserve intact,’’ said Dagmar Brahs, a western Boynton Beach resident who has worked to shield the Ag Reserve from development.

Located between Florida’s Turnpike and the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, the reserve was created in 1980.

Lettuce, other veggies

With its prime farming land and year-round warm temperatures, the Ag Reserve’s lettuce, green peppers, cucumbers and other vegetables feed much of the United States in winter months and generate an annual economic income to the county of about $280 million, county officials say.

But the land is also prized by developers such as GL Homes, whose Ag Reserve communities include Canyon Lakes, Canyon Isles and Canyon Springs. Throughout the reserve, GL’s billboards touting “new homes from the $400’s to the $700’s” can be seen rising over fields of colorful flowers and green vegetables.

Preservationists said they also are worried that many people who live in those developments and complain about early-morning noise from farm equipment don’t realize the importance of the area’s agriculture.

“More rooftops make it more difficult to farm for the existing farmers who want to keep farming,’’ said former County Commissioner Karen Marcus, who led the fight to maintain the reserve during a 28-year commission tenure that ended in 2012.

A group called “STAR” – an acronym for “Save the Ag Reserve” – will wear green shirts to Tuesday’s meeting with “Save our Veggies” in yellow letters on the front and “Preserve the Reserve” on the back.

‘”It’s something the citizens voted to preserve and they need to be reminded why it’s important,’’ said Roni Freedman, a Highland Beach resident who keeps a horse in the reserve.

What if owners want to sell?

On the other side, attorney Mark Perry said he represents about 20 farmers and nursery owners who want changes that would allow them to sell their land for more money by making it more attractive to someone who might want to develop it for homes or shops.

“I’m hoping the county commission will listen to my clients because they are really the stakeholders in this,’’ said Perry.

Perry said he will suggest a proposal that would allow more commercial and residential development while still preserving the intent of the Ag Reserve. His proposal, which would not affect land purchased by the bond money, would include an “overlay area” allowing a maximum density of three units per acre.

Now, residential development is restricted to subdivisions with one unit for every 5 acres or in planned developments at one unit per acre with 60 percent to 80 percent of the development’s land set aside for open space or agriculture.

“This is a big change,’’ Perry said. “I wouldn’t expect everybody to embrace this. We need to make a plan.’’

Commerical ‘corridors’

Perry’s proposal also would increase the area available for commercial development by creating commercial “corridors” along Atlantic Avenue, Boynton Beach Boulevard, State Road 441 and Lyons Road.

Under current rules, commercial uses are restricted to two intersections – the Delray Marketplace at the northwest corner of Lyons Road and Atlantic Avenue and the Canyon Town Center at the southeast corner of Lyons and Boynton Beach Boulevard.

Some private planners said those so-called “traditional marketplaces” serve many residents who don’t live in the Ag Reserve, and the Delray Marketplace is more of an outdoor mall like CityPlace in West Palm Beach than a shopping plaza with easier access.

“When you are in the Ag Reserve, you can’t buy a hammer and screw driver. You have to go to The Home Depot,’’ which is outside of the reserve, said Perry.

Tim Linkous, who has operated Valico Nurseries on Boynton Beach Boulevard just west of Florida’s Turnpike since 1978, said the current rules hurt him and other small agricultural businesses, including many that are struggling.

If he sold his 40 acres today, whoever bought the land would be allowed to develop on only 20 percent of it.

“When the Ag Reserve came about, it benefited the larger landowners. But the smaller landowners, it really kind of put a hurt on us,’’ said Linkous, 63. “When you need an exit strategy for anyone our age who wants to retire, it’s kind of difficult to do that with land labeled as Ag Reserve.’’

One option could be for the county to start a new buy-back program aimed at helping people like Linkous while still protecting the land for agriculture, preservationists say. Finding money for such a program could be a challenge.

“Development shouldn’t be the only option on the table,’’ said Marcus, who thinks the county should post promotional signs near the entrances to the Ag Reserve to offer commuters a brief explanation of the land’s significance.

Both sides agree that the commission’s decisions to change the rules to allow two major projects in the reserve — the Solid Waste Authority waste transfer station and the 80-bed Bethesda West Hospital — have led to conditions not anticipated when the reserve was created.

“The location of a hospital in the Ag Reserve has resulted in significant development pressure to develop properties (near) the hospital with commercial medical office development,’’ according to a county memo.

Berger called for the workshop during a zoning commission debate in December over a developer’s request to allow more shops, restaurants and other commercial uses on properties of less than 10 acres.

Commissioners didn’t approve developer Doug Feurring’s request for a shopping complex on 5 acres at the southeast corner of Lyons Road and Atlantic Avenue. But, to the dismay of preservationists, commissioners agreed instead to consider the broader question about whether it’s time to loosen the building restrictions.

“The idea initially was a good idea as far as the Ag Reserve trying to develop a plan to bring in residential with farming. As you go out there today, you see it evolving into something different now,’’ Perry said.

Is question settled?

Joanne Davis of the growth-management group 1,000 Friends of Florida questioned the need for another workshop, pointing out how the county commission held an Ag Reserve workshop and bus tour in 2012 before deciding against any changes.

The current commission has two members who were not on the commission in 2012 — Berger, who succeeded longtime south-county commissioner Burt Aaronson, and Hal Valeche, who succeeded Marcus.

“I don’t know why there’s a shred of interest in commercializing the Ag Reserve,’’ Davis said. “Well, I know why: It’s about money. But it needs to be about county leaders keeping their word.’’

So far, at least one county commissioner doesn’t want to make any changes.

“This is a particularly unique piece of property and there was a commitment made to the public,’’ said commissioner Paulette Burdick. “There is no significant compelling reason to change the plan.’’



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