Preservationists: Palm Beach County letting growth go too far too fast

Published in The Palm Beach Post (FL), 2015-07-17

July 17, 2015 — Joe and Barbara O’Donnell’s 60-acre horse farm west of Delray Beach is a cocoon of green, walled in by trees.

There, with horses neighing in their stalls or striding on some portion of the farm’s lush pasture, it is easy to forget that less than five miles away lies Delray Beach’s downtown entertainment district of concrete and bright lights.

That district can’t be seen or heard on the farm, nor can the development that is transforming Palm Beach County . The O’Donnells, however, are well aware of that development.

As the county enters another building boom — new, lavish subdivisions sprout up every few months, it seems — the O’Donnells and others worry that a quieter, pastoral place, free of traffic jams and noise, is being lost. They are worried, too, that county policymakers are ignoring their pleas in a mad rush to give developers anything they want.

In an occasional series, The Palm Beach Post is amplifying the voices being raised in an ongoing debate about growth — including those of developers, nurserymen and farmers, county policy makers and preservationists like the O’Donnells. That debate will shape how the county changes over the next couple decades.

“I’m not against development,” Joe O’Donnell said. “I’m against the way development has been allowed to happen, with disregard to those impacted.”

O’Donnell, whose Irish Acres of Florida horse farm is located in the county’s Agricultural Reserve, a fertile crescent of 22,000 acres west of Boynton Beach and Delray Beach , said he simply wants the county to force builders to adhere to the strict rules in place to manage development.

Instead, O’Donnell said, the county allows for rezonings and variances that accelerate growth, rendering the rules meaningless. Furthermore, he said, the process is tilted heavily in favor of builders, who often work with county staff members for more than a year before any public input is required.

By that point, he said, the parameters of the project are set.

“They work with them maybe for a year, maybe for 18 months,” he said. “Nobody knows that’s happening. Then there’s a hearing date published.”

At that hearing, the developer makes a presentation. Groups are allowed to make presentations, too. But individuals, including those potentially impacted by the project, are limited to three minutes.

“The developers have had months and months, but the people that development impacts, they’ve got three minutes,” O’Donnell said. “The way it should work is they should invite the landowners in, from Day One. They’re looking at books and rules, not the impact on people. The fact is you don’t have an impact.”

And he wants to have an impact because turning open space into subdivisions limits where horses can be ridden, and that affects O’Donnell’s business.

Deputy County Administrator Verdenia Baker, who hosted a series of public meetings on possible changes to zoning rules in the Ag Reserve, said the public already has ample opportunity to provide input.

“(Developers) may come to us with a plan, but we also talk to them and encourage them to talk to the people the project would impact,” she said, pointing to the example of Westlake, a 4,500-home project formerly known as Minto West where the county told the developer to meet with area residents.

But O’Donnell said G.L. Homes , a major land owner and developer in the Ag Reserve, has as little communication with the public about its projects as possible.

“G.L., they pretty much go about development without any concern about people like me,” O’Donnell said. “They don’t talk to us. They don’t see how they could be good neighbors.”

G.L. Homes Vice President Larry Fortnoy said that’s not true, adding that his firm has worked to provide some of the equestrian access valued by some residents.

“We have spent millions of dollars building a rural parkway adjacent to our developments along Lyons Road ,” Fortnoy said. “The rural parkway contains an equestrian trail that is open to the public, which is protected in perpetuity through the rural parkway easement. It should be noted that the homeowners association for these developments maintains the rural parkway, and therefore the equestrian trail, at no cost to the general public.”

Others also worry about whether the county is moving too fast and too far with development roaring back in the post-recession era.

County Engineer George Webb has raised traffic concerns about G.L. Homes’ plan to put 4,000 homes on a 3,900-acre tract of land about 20 miles west of Riviera Beach because the Minto Co.’s plan for Westlake just southeast of there will already have an effect.

ALERTS Inc. , a group of county residents concerned about over-development, has lauched a legal effort to stop Westlake, arguing that the county violated state laws against urban sprawl when it approved the project.

That argument was rejected by an administrative law judge, whose recommended order recently was accepted by the state.

The residents are pressing ahead, however.

” ALERTS Inc. is very concerned about the impacts Minto West will have on western Palm Beach County and is reviewing its legal options, including a potential appeal and a parallel action it brought seeking to reverse the rezoning, with their attorneys,” said Ralf Brookes , an attorney representing the residents. ” Minto West is the wrong project in the wrong place.”

And Arthur Kirstein , coordinator of the county’s Office of Agricultural Economic Development , says development is putting pressure on agricultural output in the county.

For example, he noted that 5,591 acres of bell peppers were harvested in the county in 2012. Five years earlier, he said, 13,839 acres of bell peppers were harvested.

“This is a reflection of the decline in agricultural acres within the Ag Reserve,” Kirstein said in an email to Pam Martens , an activist who has urged the county to limit development in the Agricultural Reserve.

Martens said preservationists’ pleas have fallen on deaf ears. She pointed to the passage of Amendment 1 in 1999, which directed the county to spend $100 million to purchase land that would be set aside for farming.

The county has purchased that land, but Martens said the county is ignoring the broader message voters sent — that they value open space and farmland.

Frustrated, opponents of more development in the Ag Reserve are holding a rally before the county commission meeting Tuesday morning outside of the Palm Beach County Governmental Center at 301 N. Olive Ave. , West Palm Beach .

“The conservation community does not feel like the majority of the county commissioners are listening to the voice of the people,” Martens wrote in an email to The Palm Beach Post . “When things are put to a voter referendum, like Amendment 1, the vast majority of citizens show that they want open space and preserved land. But when things go for a vote at the County Commission , more sprawling developments always win.”

(c)2015 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)