Huge parcels of undeveloped land, once dedicated to farmers, have vanished in Palm Beach County as developers raced to build thousands of homes on them.
The future of the Agricultural Reserve, a 21,000-acre farming region west of Boynton Beach and Delray Beach, has been a subject of fierce debate over land preservation — a battle that ignited once again in recent weeks when the county allowed even more homes and apartments to be built there.
Since 2000, more than 9,400 homes have been built in the reserve, according to the county. And that number will continue to increase.
On May 5, county commissioners approved a controversial deal allowing GL Homes, the largest housing developer in the Agricultural Reserve, to build over 300 new homes on existing farmland. Additionally, commissioners paved the way for a 520-unit apartment building to satisfy demand for workforce housing in western Palm Beach County.
Palm Beach County Mayor Dave Kerner, who voted against the county’s recent measures, said part of the reason he ran for office was because he was “born and raised near underdeveloped land and it’s part of the history culture of our county.”
“From time and time, [the Ag Reserve] is chipped away at,” Kerner said. “I guess I’m one of the bad guys that tries to stand in the way of that.”
Here’s a look at how the county’s undeveloped land has disappeared.
1999: Voters want to preserve land
Environmental advocates oppose letting developers build on land that has been set aside for farming. They’ve raised concerns that development will put an end to a unique area in South Florida intended to limit suburban sprawl and preserve one of the nation’s most productive farming areas east of the Mississippi River.
Many of those limits have gradually eroded, with rules rewritten to allow for more construction. “We’re continuing to undermine and gut the original intent of the [Ag Reserve] plan,” says Lisa Interlandi, of the Everglades Law Center, a firm dedicated toward environmental and land use issues. “We’ve ended up in a situation where we’re constantly, constantly changing the rules to accommodate more and more growth.”
Persuaded by the threat of overdevelopment, voters support spending $100 million to buy about 2,400 acres in 1999, land that was leased to agricultural users in Palm Beach County.
After the voter referendum, county planners compile a “Master Plan” for the Agricultural Reserve, placing limits on development. The county can require developers to save the majority of properties for conservation, agricultural uses or water storage in what’s become known as the “60/40 rule.” It requires that 60% of land is preserved, while 40% can be used for development. Originally, county planners require any lands being sold for development to have at least 150 contiguous acres designated for preservation.
2005: Building a hospital
County officials allow construction of Bethesda West Hospital, a 63-acre facility not envisioned in the original plan. That leads to “significant development pressure to develop properties close to the hospital with commercial medical office development,” county documents say.
County commissioners later allow the hospital to add two additional three-story office buildings and then loosen restrictions to allow more medical office development on agricultural land.
2009: GL Homes adds more houses
County commissioners grant the housing developer a major approval, allowing GL Homes to almost double the size of a new neighborhood in the Agricultural Reserve. The plan allows GL Homes to build almost 1,000 new homes on nearly 1,000 acres between Lyons Road and U.S. 441.
GL Homes, which specializes in luxury homes and 55-and-over communities, has since created thousands of new homes over the past 10 years in West Boynton. Since 2009, four of its “Valencia” communities have opened along Lyons Road just south of Boynton Beach Boulevard, creating over 3,000 new homes. Individual Valencia communities range between 500 to over 1,000 homes.
2015: Building homes closer together
County commissioners vote to change a rule that requires any lands sold for development to have at least 150 contiguous acres designated for preservation, allowing for smaller parcels to be sold.
As a result, more small, isolated parcels are designated for preservation, going against the original intent of the plan, according to county documents.
Parcels as small as 5 acres are allowed to meet the preserve requirements, leading to more homes. The smaller 5-acre properties are “often squeezed in between development and other preserve parcels, which has resulted in incompatible and unsustainable development patterns,” according to county documents.
Interlandi noted this ruling as being especially egregious, saying, “It’s hard for agriculture to exist in 1- or 2-acre dribs or drabs.”
April 2021: Hundreds of new homes
GL Homes finalizes a deal that will result in at least 277 new homes — and likely hundreds more in the future — south of Boynton Beach Boulevard and west of Lyons Road as part of a new upscale community.
The project will be directly south of Valencia Reserve, a GL Homes property with more than 1,000 homes. In total, GL Homes will acquire 580 acres of land from the Whitworth family, which will be split into two phases.
Construction on the first phase is projected to begin near the start of 2022, meaning homes could be finished by the end of that year.
May 5, 2021: A ‘creative plan’
In a controversial ruling approved May 5, county commissioners allow the Lake Worth Drainage District to sell GL Homes 276 acres along its canals within the reserve for $22 million. The Lake Worth Drainage District manages water resources for much of southeastern Palm Beach County and controls 500 miles of canals and 1,000 miles of associated rights of way, according to its website.
While no one can build on the property along the canals, GL Homes gets rights for preserving that land and then can be allowed to build 313 homes on existing farmland elsewhere in the reserve.
County planners and lawyers oppose the deal, but commissioners allow the sale to go through.
Some county leaders argue that the government has done its part, buying up property to ensure it stays preserved.
Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, who represents much of the western farming region, approves the recent deal, saying the Lake Worth Drainage District came up with a “creative plan” to raise revenue at a time when the county faces “potential water supply issues.”
McKinlay says she feels the county has struck the right balance in terms of preservation and development.
“The whole public outcry that we’re not doing what we promised the voters back in 1999 and early 2000s … we’ve got a 22,000-acre area of the county. Over 13,000 acres of it is in preservation,” she says. “We’ve added to our commitment and the $100 million we spent buying 2,500 acres — well, we still own all of that and that hasn’t changed.”
May 5, 2021: Allowing apartments
In another instance of commissioners ignoring the advice of county planners, the board paves the way on May 5 for a 520-unit apartment complex in the reserve.
At issue was the prior rule allowing for just one unit per acre in an attempt to limit density.
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Commissioners, however, allow the complex, Reserve at the Atlantic, to build the 40-acre site on the southeast corner of Atlantic Avenue and Half Mile Road with a density of up to eight units per acre.
Prior to the decision, county planners object to the proposal, calling it piecemeal. Planners also worry that allowing the plan will “bring into question the future of the approximately 4,698 acres in preserve areas that are currently in private ownership.”
Will development in the Ag Reserve continue?
Interlandi is concerned that “if you continue to change the rules, the development will never stop.” It could lead to a situation similar to Broward County, she said: “Thousand-home developments directly up adjacent to the Everglades.”