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2
Feb

Commission votes could open western areas to more development

2 February 2016

By: Palm Beach Post

Commercial development prospects got a boost Wednesday when the Palm Beach County Commission backed a series of requests for land use changes in two midwestern areas of the county.

During a nine-hour, sometimes-heated meeting, environmentalists and preservationists blasted the decisions as a further weakening of rules put in place to promote agriculture and protect the environment. But landowners in the Agricultural Reserve, a farming zone located west of Boynton Beach and Delray Beach, praised the Commission’s actions, saying the strict land use rules of the Agricultural Reserve had unfairly limited their rights.

Taken together, the Commission’s moves — approving three requests for land use changes in the Agricultural Reserve, giving preliminary approval for a new rule freeing small landowners the reserve from having to meet preservation requirements and backing a request for additional light industrial activity in an area designated for agriculture and Everglades restoration farther north — underscores that this Commission is more open to development than were predecessors of recent years.

The decisions next go to the state Department of Economic Opportunity for review, then return to the County Commission for a final vote, expected in April. Commissioners say they are acting on a case-by-case basis and push back — angrily at times — against the notion that they are kowtowing to development interests at the expense of the environment and agriculture.

“I don’t see this as an apocalypse for the Agricultural Reserve,” Commissioner Hal Valeche said as he and his colleagues debated the requests of three petitioners — Delray Growers, Jim Alderman and Steve Homrich — in the south county agricultural area.

Each petitioner owns property in the Agricultural Reserve, and all sought permission to have commercial development on their property. Current rules bar such development, but they argued that their agricultural pursuits were no longer compatible with their surroundings. Homrich and his wife, Rose Homrich, said the issue was one of fairness. “From where I stand, it seems my rights have been taken away,” Rose Homrich told commissioners.  Not only did commissioners grant the Homrich, Delray Growers and Alderman requests, they then voted 5-2, with Commissioners Paulette Burdick and Melissa McKinlay opposed, to have staff remove another potential barrier to commercial development on their property — the Agricultural Reserve’s requirement that six acres be set aside for preservation for every four that are developed.

Staff members had recommended that the so-called 60-40 preservation rule should apply to the owners of small chunks of land in the Agricultural Reserve just as it applied to giant developers looking to build a shopping center or subdivision.  Several commissioners disagreed.  “I don’t see the fairness of it,” Commissioner Priscilla Taylor said. “I don’t see how it would be developed. Why put that undue burden on them?”
Environmentalists and preservationists said allowing commercial development without requiring that some land be set aside for preservation runs counter to the theme of the Agricultural Reserve.  “There is no way you can say adding more commercial without adding anything to preservation does anything for agriculture,” said Lisa Interlandi, senior attorney for the Everglades Law Center. “I don’t even think an argument can be made.”

Attorney Henry Handler, who represents some landowners in the area, suggested that the 60-40 rule be scrapped for those in the Agricultural Reserve who own less than 20 acres. After some debate, the Commission voted in favor of dropping the preservation requirement for those who own less than 16 acres. That votes came after a decision to allow PBA Holdings to have light industrial use on 138 acres it owns west of Wellington. PBA Holdings’ representatives said their land use request could be the first step in landing a jobs-producing computer server farm. But environmentalists and preservationists said granting the land use change would invite growth beyond the L-8 Canal into an area where development was to be limited.

The Commission voted 5-2 in favor of PBA Holdings’ request, with Burdick and Commissioner Hal Valeche in opposition.

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