Palm Beach State College received preliminary approval Tuesday from the Loxahatchee Groves Town Council for a land-use change that will enable the college to build its fifth campus on 75 acres of the 96.7-acre Simon property at the northwest corner of B Road and Southern Blvd.
The council also approved an amendment that will allow approximately 100,000 square feet of low-density commercial use on the remaining 21.7 acres of the Simon property.
Councilman Jim Rockett expressed concern about the lack of control the town has over the college project, which is controlled by state regulations with input and recommendations from local governmental entities.
Town Planner Jim Fleischmann said that under the amendment, which was developed with input from the town’s Planning & Zoning Board, the college would develop a master plan and submit it to the town for review before submission to the Florida Department of Education.
Fleischmann read from the amendment, which states that the college shall allow the town to participate and have input in preparation in each of the five-year updates to the campus master plan before it’s submitted to the DOE.
“It’s staff’s opinion that that language meets the intent of the recommendations of the Planning & Zoning Board, and gives specific direction to the college on how and when the town will have the opportunity to participate in the master planning process,” Fleischmann said.
Rockett said he was uncomfortable with the town only giving input and recommendations. “Words like ‘the opportunity to review’ don’t sound like you’re an equal at the table,” he said. “It sounds more like you are looking and raise a concern, but that’s the end of it if nobody at the table wants to take that further. At what point does the town give up its right to alter what goes on that property?”
Attorney Bill Perry, representing the college, said the transmittal of the amendment to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, formerly the Department of Community Affairs, is opening the window for input from other governmental entities and citizens. “It’s not a final action this evening,” Perry said, explaining that the town will be able to comment during the review process.
Perry said the purpose of the amendment is to provide enabling language in the town’s comp plan. “There will be at least two other public hearings where you get an opportunity to see the master plan and see what the college would look like,” he said.
Palm Beach State College President Dr. Dennis Gallon said the college has a record of being a good neighbor and of environmental stewardship, recounting the growth of its other four campuses.
“We are all interested in making it possible for the residents of this community to have easy access to the courses and programs that we have to offer,” Gallon said. “I’m not saying you should not be concerned about those things, but I would like for us to keep our eyes on the prize, and that is to be sure that the residents of this community will not have to travel all over.”
All the campuses offer associate’s degrees; some work force degrees, such as the nursing program at the Lake Worth campus and a biotech degree at the Palm Beach Gardens campus; as well as some four-year degrees. All the campuses offerings focus on the economic needs of the community. He said that at some point, he would like to meet with residents of Loxahatchee Groves and the western communities to determine what their specific needs are.
Gallon stressed that the college has always shown sensitivity to the environment, pointing to the 60-year development of the Lake Worth campus. Showing a picture of the land in 1954, he pointed out that it was rather barren, but the college took care to develop it in harmony with the environment. Showing slides of the campus in 2011, he said, “You can see that a lot of building has taken place, but you can see that we have been very sensitive to the environment in the kind of buildings we have built.”
Showing pictures of the three other campuses, he demonstrated that they have developed in a similar manner.
“We have four permanent campuses now, but I think all of us will agree that they are the epitome of having a college campus with the ambiance that will address educational needs but also the environment as well,” Gallon said.
College consultant Collene Walter with Urban Design Kilday Studios said there were no specific building plans at this point. “The college cannot tell you at this time where buildings and parking will be, or the best places for water retention,” Walter said. “That will probably develop over the next 50 years.”
She said initial plans will be presented to the town’s Planning & Zoning Board in July.
Rockett said he was satisfied with the answers. “I may have sounded harsh, which I intended to, but at the same time… there is a time when you have to assess who you are dealing with and you develop a certain amount of trust,” he said.
Several residents expressed concern about increased traffic on B Road, which would be paved from Southern Blvd. to Okeechobee Blvd., with two access points on B Road and three on Southern Blvd.
Councilman Ryan Liang shared that concern. “Probably the biggest concern that we have as a town is through traffic,” Liang said. “I would do everything I can to try to focus traffic onto Southern and try to keep it out of our local roads as much as possible.”
He said more meetings should be arranged with the Florida Department of Transportation on the access points to B Road. “I don’t think FDOT really understands what our roads look like,” Liang said. “I think they think they are regular roads. I don’t think they know they don’t exactly fit two lanes.”
Mayor Dave Browning said he has resisted change for the 32 years he has lived in Loxahatchee Groves but accepted the presence of the college as beneficial to the town. “We cannot stop change,” Browning said, pointing out advantages of other college campuses in other towns. “Changes will happen… Here we know what we get for the next 50 years. Here there is a trust.”
Rockett made a motion to approve transmission of the amendment to the Department of Economic Opportunity, which carried 4-0 with Councilman Tom Goltzené absent.