28 Jun How Palm Beach County might waste $100 million, and more

By Randy Schultz
Courtesy of the Sun Sentinel

GL Homes is the leading builder in and around the Agricultural Reserve Area, where developers must preserve 60 percent of their land. GL proposes to preserve land outside of the reserve in exchange for being allowed to build on 100 percent of three parcels in the reserve.

With this proposal, GL wants to exploit one favor to get a bigger one. Six months ago, the county commission allowed GL 700 percent more homes than rules had allowed on 4,900 acres near The Acreage, the large unincorporated community west of West Palm Beach. That project is called Indian Trails Grove.

GL would preserve 2,900 acres of Indian Trails Grove in return for another 2,000 homes in the Agricultural Reserve. In an interview, GL Vice President Larry Portnoy said that because the Indian Trails acres are farmed, the deal would “expand what the Agricultural Reserve is, albeit in a different location.”

The public, however, spent $100 million to save the Agricultural Reserve, not a “different location.” Portnoy said the deal “would not touch” the public land. But it would be “just a matter of time,” Interlandi said, before suburbia won — breaking the public’s trust and costing Palm Beach County a key industry.

In addition, there would be only a promise of those 2,900 acres being preserved. Karen Marcus, whose priority during her 28 years on the county commission was growth management, said that lack of a guarantee undercuts “the heart” of Portnoy’s argument. An easement could restrict the land to conservation, but the commission could lift it.

GL is playing the system under which commissioners are elected from single-member districts. Melissa McKinlay represents The Acreage and voted against Indian Trails Grove. Under GL’s proposal, McKinlay loses a project her constituents oppose. The Agricultural Reserve also loses.

Steven Abrams and Hal Valeche regularly have voted to weaken Agricultural Reserve protections. Paulette Burdick, the most anti-development commissioner, would vote against GL. Mack Bernard and Dave Kerner ran last year against overdevelopment.

That 3-3 split would make Mary Lou Berger the swing vote. Her district includes the reserve. Burt Aaronson represented the district for 24 years and often was friendly to GL. The Palm Beach Post reported that he has been lobbying Berger, his former aide, on behalf of GL.

Berger’s district also includes the influential Coalition of Boynton West Residential Associations (COWBRA). It has 108 member communities and about 125,000 residents. COWBRA’s website says the deal would “put an unbearable strain” on West Boynton and “open the floodgates for future developers to utilize this tactic to further increase residential and commercial development on our area.”

The Indian Trail Improvement District, which governs The Acreage, expressed support for GL’s proposal. Yet GL’s Kevin Ratterree acknowledged that some tempting idea for those 2,900 acres could come along. One district commissioner fantasized about a casino that could eliminate the need for property taxes.

Since the county commission wants to buy out the South Florida Water Management District’s share of another key Agricultural Reserve parcel, accepting GL’s proposal would make even less sense. Interlandi, who helped block Palm Beach County from putting Scripps Florida on a remote citrus grove, said, “Under this proposal, it will only be a matter of time before every acre of private preserve is developed in the Ag Reserve.” And the public’s $100 million would be plowed under.