County Commission votes on GL Homes swap
A controversial land swap that would enable the development of 1,000 luxury homes in Palm Beach County’s Agricultural Reserve received initial support from the Board of Commissioners Wednesday night.
The 5-2 vote was a major victory for GL Homes, one of the leading residential developers in Palm Beach County. It also signals a major change to the Ag Reserve, which county voters overwhelmingly agreed in 1999 to keep mostly rural. The approval now goes to the state for review and will come back to the commission Aug. 30 for final adoption.
“We are pleased the Palm Beach County Commission saw merit in our proposal and look forward to returning in the fall to present our final plans,” GL Homes President Misha Ezratti said after the meeting.
The deal involves GL Homes giving the county a 1,600-acre parcel of land it owns in the Loxahatchee area in exchange for being able to develop 682 acres of restricted land in the Ag Reserve.
County commissioners Maria Sachs, whose district includes much of the Ag Reserve, and fellow south county Commissioner Marci Woodward opposed the measure.
Sachs said the move violated the will of residents who voted in a 1999 referendum to raise their taxes to buy land to preserve the Ag Reserve.
“As far as I’m concerned people have spoken, and the most important thing is that this is our word. This is our bond,” Sachs said. “And we have to follow what we’ve always said. We’re going to keep this preserved.”
The proposal was strongly opposed by environmental groups and voted down by the county’s Planning Commission. County planners recommended against it as well, saying it was a major land use change that was inconsistent with the county plan for the 22,000-acre swath of land in the western part of the county.
“This is a significant departure of some from some fundamental concepts,” of the county’s Ag Reserve plan, said Bryan Davis, a Palm Beach County planner.
Several commissioners said they were torn, but liked the sweeteners added by GL Homes. In addition to 1,000 GL Homes said it will donate for upscale housing for seniors aged 55 and up, they also plan to build 277 moderately priced workforce housing units as well as a $150 million water treatment plan in the West Palm Beach area.
They are also offering acres for farming, a public park, a synagogue, a Jewish school and housing for seniors with disabilities.
Commissioner Sara Baxter said she felt the southern part of the county was better equipped to handle the housing developments than the Loxahatchee area, which she represents. More farming land will be preserved than will be lost, she said.
“We’re not deciding whether these units get built for deciding where,” she said. “We don’t have the infrastructure in the Acreage to support these units. We have dirt roads. We have milled roads. We have very few actually paved roads.”
The southern part of the county was more attractive to GL Homes because property values are higher and they can sell more expensive homes.. The homes are expected to range in price from $950,000 to $1.5 million. Amenities will include pickleball and tennis courts, a clubhouse and ballroom, three pools, an on-site full-service restaurants; and 100 golf memberships are set aside at the neighboring Stonebridge Country Club.
Dozens of public speakers urged the commissioners to support the project, saying these projects will benefit their communites.
Boca Raton resident Eileen Alkabes said the plan would be a boon to the growing Jewish community in south Palm Beach County.
“Now we’re facing a crisis as land costs have skyrocketed, so much that Jewish organizations may never be able to afford to build a synagogue or expand their programs,” she said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a difference in our Jewish community.”
Janice Faustin, who is the science department chair at West Boca Ratorn and lives near the proposed development, supported the project. She said she was impressed that the G.L. Homes project includes 277 units of workforce housing.
“I had a committed highly respected chemistry and physics teacher just last year.He accepted the job.
He was ready to come to Boca Raton from North Florida and upon finding housing, sadly, we lost him. There was no housing,” she said. “And that was not the first time.”
But other public speakers argued the proposal would destroy the Ag Reserve and the quality of life for many in south Palm Beach County.
Boca Raton resident Meryl Davids said she and her husband moved from Broward to Palm Beach County 18 year ago to escape what they saw as overdevelopment.
“It’s really sad to watch the Ag Reserve get chipped away and to watch all this development,” she said. “You can’t just take land for one place and make it seem like you’re preserving it from somewhere else, and I’m just going to implore you not to turn Palm Beach County into Broward County.”