Editorial suggesting that it is time for Palm Beach County leaders to rethink, in a comprehensive way, development in the Ag Reserve.
A great many Palm Beach County residents have a great attachment to the Agricultural Reserve. A deeply emotional attachment.
That is certainly understandable, given what the 22,000 acres of farmland between Florida’s Turnpike and the Everglades west of Delray Beach and Boynton Beach has meant to this county.
But it is time for such attachments to become more rational. Especially when it comes to the county’s current trajectory of growth and the economic viability of small, family-owned farms in the Ag Reserve.
The county is growing by nearly 450 people a week, fueling a nearly decade-long real estate boom from Jupiter to Westlake to Boca Raton. A boom that shows little evidence of subsiding.
It’s time for a more comprehensive, balanced approach to development in the Ag Reserve. One that ends the “death-by-a-thousand-cuts” approach of the past decade, and instead takes a broader view of the need for, among other things, affordable housing for a growing Millennial workforce.
We recognize that this is not a problem with an easy answer, mostly because it requires collaboration and compromise. But the status quo has become ridiculous. Developers, looking for large swaths of land, want to build. Small farmers, finding it ever harder to make a buck, want to sell. Established residents, ever-fearful of development encroaching on their lifestyle, want none of it. And environmentalists, weary of watching the county’s pristine natural lands disappear, cry foul.
They all have valid points. And it’s time for our county leaders to not only listen, but begin the hard task of taking concrete action to address them.
Again, this is not an easy lift. Even the Post Editorial Board has, at times, been conflicted over development in the Ag Reserve.
Twenty-one years ago, the voters of this county, by a 2-to-1 margin, approved a $100 million bond issue to preserve farmland in the Ag Reserve. And to put an exclamation point on their desire to protect vulnerable lands, they also approved a $50 million bond issue to purchase wetlands and open space to keep some of the land forever free of development.
Since then, the county has allowed developers to chip away at the restrictions to increase density and remove parcels from the area so they can be sold and developed. This is untenable. The county can’t keep allowing deals for Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) and making alleged “spot zoning” decisions that are inherently controversial.
The latest cases in point: Earlier this month, the Palm Beach County Planning Department staff recommended — and the Planning Commission and the Coalition of Boynton West Residential Associations (COBWRA) agreed — exempting self-storage facilities from the commercial development cap in the reserve. Meanwhile, real estate giant GL Homes is reportedly cutting a deal to pay Faith Farm Ministries $2 million for the development rights to 25 acres of the nonprofit’s 87-acre campus in the heart of the reserve. Such exchanges previously have allowed the developer to build twice the number of homes than otherwise at its developments in the Ag Reserve.
There has to be a better way. One that preserves as much of the desirable while confronting the inevitable.
The latter includes the county’s seemingly intractable affordable housing problem. It makes little sense to allow additional residential development in the Ag Reserve that features only more million-dollar homes. Our white-collar workforce of teachers, firefighters, assistant district attorneys, nurses and retail store managers, among others, increasingly cannot afford to buy home in Palm Beach County. We need more affordable homes they can purchase, and fewer high-priced, “luxury” apartments they can rent.
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Any new, comprehensive plan for the Ag Reserve should also include room for locally grown produce from continued agricultural land use. And room, too, perhaps for self-sufficient communities that densely mix residential and commercial uses so vehicle trips are reasonably minimized and natural areas for water storage, discharge and drainage are maximized.
We do not need a plan that simply allows the reserve to be whittled to death by adding new commercial development zones or lowering the threshold on developments so that smaller parcels can be urbanized. What we need is a broad plan for the reserve that is as bold, visionary and socially-conscious as the one approved by county taxpayers two decades ago.
Perhaps most importantly, we need county leaders to acknowledge the task, and then step up to it.