County Needs Affordable Housing; Should Protected Land Be Used?

Palm Beach County’s urgent need for affordable housing will crash into its desire to protect the Agricultural Reserve Wednesday when county commissioners meet to discuss proposed development projects.

One of those projects, Morning Star, would see a 51-acre chunk of the Ag Reserve used as a site for a 130-room hotel, a 115-bed congregate living facility, 155,000 square feet of commercial space and 360 housing units, 144 of which would be set aside as lower-cost workforce housing.

Morning Star is one of several controversial proposals in recent months that raise general questions about how growth will be managed in the county or call for more development in the Ag Reserve, a 22,000-acre farming and land-conservation zone located west of Delray Beach and Boynton Beach.

In exchange for the workforce housing units, Morning Star’s backers are seeking a project-specific exemption from an Agricultural Reserve rule that requires six acres to be preserved for every four that are developed.

That rule has limited construction in the Agricultural Reserve, where upscale residential subdivisions are interspersed with farming and nursery operations.

Instead of the 30 acres Morning Star would normally be required to preserve, the project’s backers want to set aside 15 acres.

County staff members have recommended that commissioners reject the Morning Star proposal.

Neil Schiller, an attorney representing Morning Star, said the project would bring commercial development to a part of the Agricultural Reserve that needs it while adding to the county’s limited affordable housing stock.

“Here is an opportunity to finally do something about this,” Schiller said of the county’s need for affordable housing, deemed so dire it was the subject of a summit in May.

County Mayor Paulette Burdick has been among the most vocal commissioners when it comes to the need to expand the county’s affordable housing stock. But she has also been a staunch supporter of sticking to the rules of the Ag Reserve, where public money has been used to buy some parcels for agriculture or preservation.

Burdick said she the inducement of getting 144 workforce housing units is not enough to back the Morning Star project.

“At the risk of the Ag Reserve?” she asked. “At the risk of keeping its promise to the public? I don’t think so.”

Joe O’Donnell, who owns a horse farm and boarding business not far from the project site, said it would clog Starkey Road and threaten his and other nearby businesses.

“We employ about 400 people,” O’Donnell said. “What happens when our business has to shut down? What happens to them and their families?”

Schiller disputed O’Donnell’s contention that Morning Star will clog Starkey Road. He said the project would expand work and entertainment options for residents of the Ag Reserve while providing affordable housing for those who fill the 2,300 non-agriculture jobs that are based in the area.

 Joe O’Donnell, owner of Irish Acres, a 60-acre horse farm in the Agricultural Reserve west of Delray Beach, on July 15, photo
Joe O’Donnell, owner of Irish Acres, a 60-acre horse farm in the Agricultural Reserve west of Delray Beach, on July 15

“This is a workforce housing mecca,” Schiller said. “People want to work where they live.”

Morning Star is seeking an amendment to the county’s comprehensive plan, which, if it is approved by commissioners, would have to be reviewed by state officials in Tallahassee before coming back to the county commission for final approval.

That’s also true of one of the other proposed projects to be discussed Wednesday, Bainbridge, where backers want to build 304 rental units on 31 acres on the east side of State Road 7 half a mile north of Lantana Road.

Bainbridge’s backers want the county to change the comprehensive plan to allow more units to be built on the site than current rules permit. The developer is also taking advantage of the county’s workforce housing programs to build more units.

But instead of building the 62 workforce housing units the program calls for for the project, the developer plans to pay a fee in lieu of building 47 of the units. That option is part of the workforce housing program, but some county officials have complained that it has contributed to the dearth of affordable housing in the county.

The county’s staff has recommended that commissioners approve the Bainbridge project — if its developer agrees to designate 76 units for workforce housing.

Efforts to reach the Bainbridge applicants or their representatives were unsuccessful Monday.

As with Morning Star, some residents believe Bainbridge would increase traffic in the south-central part of the county west of SR 7. Opponents also say the project, although not in the Agricultural Reserve, is not compatible with the surrounding area.

Nearly 600 people have signed a petition opposing the project, noting that it would be built next to single-family homes.

That the proposal includes some workforce housing should not persuade commissioners to back it, said Rachel Docekal, who lives near the project site.

“The broader community in which I live includes a good bit of workforce housing, and we welcome it,” Docekal wrote in an email to The Palm Beach Post. “The Bainbridge application is a high-density, luxury apartment complex in which the developer is utilizing the incentives and concessions afforded to workforce housing applications with no intention of providing workforce housing.”