The Palm Beach County Commission voted 6-1 last week to approve up to 2,000 homes on the 1,209-acre Highland Dunes land within the Palm Beach Aggregates property, 2.5 miles west of Seminole Pratt Whitney Road.
About 20 residents from surrounding neighborhoods opposed the development at a county zoning meeting Thursday, Oct. 24, saying it would complicate transportation and drainage, and compromise their rural way of life. Commissioner Jess Santamaria, who represents the area, cast the only dissenting vote.
The commission had postponed considering the development in September to give staff additional time to notify surrounding communities, where residents complained they had not been aware of the project.
Palm Beach County Zoning Director Jon MacGillis said his staff had sent notices, and Highland Dunes representative Kieran Kilday had met with several interested groups in the area.
The action last week essentially returns Highland Dunes to the same zoning it had five years ago, which was abandoned when the residential home market collapsed.
Senior Planner Carrie Rechenmacher explained that the application asks for rezoning from a residential transitional (RT) zoning district to a planned unit development (PUD) district for 2,000 units at a gross density of 1.65 units per acre.
The site had been rezoned in 2008 from the PUD to the RT to allow agricultural uses during the housing downturn, which saved the property owner about $1 million per year in property taxes.
The agricultural zoning will be abandoned with the PUD request, Rechenmacher said.
Highland Dunes is surrounded by Deer Run to the north; Palm Beach Aggregates, the West County Energy Center and the C-51 Reservoir to the west; and Fox Trail, Lion Country Safari and the Town of Loxahatchee Groves to the east, although they do not border the property. The South Florida Water Management District’s Stormwater Treatment Area 1-East, annexed by Wellington, is to the south.
The developer seeks 1,252 single-family units, 628 zero-lot-line homes, 120 townhouses designated as workforce housing, a 5.6-acre pod to allow a maximum of 50,000 square feet of commercial uses, a 24-acre public/civic pod to include a 20-acre park and 50,000 square feet of offices for government services, and a 15-acre civic pod for a 970-student public elementary school.
Also proposed is 516 acres of open space that would include 96 acres of lakes, 17 acres of public trails and 13 acres of private recreation area.
There would be two access points: from Southern Blvd. to the south and one to the future extension of Okeechobee Blvd. to the north, plus one cross access to a future development to the east, which is now a sod farm.
Conditions of approval limit the development to 2,000 units and a minimum of 30,000 and a maximum of 50,000 square feet of commercial; require it to reserve right-of-way potential to connect to Okeechobee Blvd. to the north and to be a part of the Glades Area Protection Overlay; and specify that it not be allowed to voluntarily annex into any municipality. Another condition requires a 50-foot-wide corridor on the northern and western boundaries of the site.
Rechenmacher stressed that the current request had not changed significantly from what was approved in 2004, along with the conditions.
She said that Kilday had made a presentation to the Acreage Landowners’ Association on Oct. 7, where it was rejected by members. She added that staff was recommending approval of the application, subject to the 44 conditions of approval.
Commissioner Priscilla Taylor asked about the response from Deer Run residents, the only residential development immediately adjacent, and Rechenmacher said she had not received any responses.
Kilday said he had reached out to the managers of the three local municipalities as well as Loxahatchee Groves Mayor Dave Browning, and made a presentation to the ALA, but that he thought the 20 opponents who voted against the measure at the ALA meeting didn’t represent a large turnout.
He also met with Deer Run representatives and worked out an agreement to solve drainage issues there, some of which related to water running off the undeveloped Highland Dunes property into Deer Run.
“Deer Run is our closest neighbor to the north,” he said. “We do not share drainage systems, but there have been incidents during those hurricane events because of the current property, which doesn’t really have an active drainage system.”
Kilday said the developer had agreed to help fix Deer Run drainage issues by installing inlets in the future right of way of Okeechobee Blvd.
“That’s our closest property to Deer Run,” he said. “The concern was that you have this 200-foot right of way, and even though it’s not constructed, it’s not on any five-year plan, we don’t know if it will ever get constructed, it still gets water on it. We will put inlets within the unpaved right of way to collect that water and bring it under our berm and into our drainage system.
Kilday also made a presentation to the Central Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce, which submitted a letter supporting the project. “You gave me 30 days,” he said. “I tried to make the best of it and visit with whoever wanted information on the project.”
Kilday pointed out that the Highland Dunes property is covered with sand pumped from the C-51 excavation project, raising the elevation. To contain the sand, a large berm was built that still exists. It has been incorporated into the design to provide buffering to surrounding property owners.
Kilday recounted the situation back in 2004, when representatives from Wellington had contacted him as the agent about annexing the property, and that the density discussed at the time was two units per acre, which would have given up to 2,400 homes on the land.
The county noticed the activity and acted out of concern that if Wellington annexed north of Southern Blvd., that would open up a westerly flow of annexation.
“The county has always been very protective of the Everglades farmland, so the county called me and they said, ‘We need to talk to the owners,’ and a negotiation was started,” Kilday said. “The negotiation resulted in the creation of the Glades Area Protection Overlay.”
The overlay approved the residential zoning for Highland Dunes but assured that westward expansion would not happen.
Former Loxahatchee Groves Councilman Dr. Bill Louda, a professor of environmental chemistry at Florida Atlantic University, said STA1-E may legally be in Wellington but in reality it is part of the Everglades.
“I’m going to let everyone else speak to the absurdity of this with the surrounding community,” Louda said. “This is totally incompatible. This is greed, not need.”
He said more and more pressure is being brought to protect the coastal lagoons and asserted that the Highland Dunes property could be incorporated for that purpose. “People in the Indian River Lagoon aren’t swimming in it anymore,” Louda said. “It’s too dangerous. We’re getting impacts in the Lake Worth Lagoon already.”
Louda suggested putting Highland Dunes, and the sod farm to the east where future development is planned, back to mining and to take all the fill and make a huge berm on the north and east sides of the sod farm, putting those 2,000 acres into another stormwater treatment area to help clean up water going into the C-51 Canal and the Lake Worth Lagoon, and adding additional drainage protection for the western communities.
Mayor Dave Browning said the area has changed since the original approval. He pointed out that the Central Western Communities Sector Plan, which was going through the approval process when the original Highland Dunes project was submitted, had ultimately been rejected.
“The second thing is the employment center that was supposed to be to the east is no longer there,” Browning said.
He added that flooding from Tropical Storm Isaac had changed people’s outlook toward storm protection in that area. “For the first time in 34 years I had flooding in my house,” Browning said, explaining that there were issues getting water out of Loxahatchee Groves into the C-51 Canal because it was maxed out. “Now we’re adding another development that wants to dump water into the C-51.”
Highland Dunes representatives said their property would have its own retention ponds, which would mitigate large releases of water to the C-51.
Browning added that he thought with all the developments planned in the area, the commission should take a broader view toward approvals. He also pointed out that the proposed density is several times greater than that of any other development in the area.
Loxahatchee Groves Town Attorney Michael Cirullo also pointed out that the commission is not obligated to give the developer the maximum allowable density.
Commissioner Jess Santamaria said as a businessman, he understands the goals of the owner to want to maximize profits by maximizing density, but that doesn’t mean government should help.
“I believe one can make a decent living by just changing the word ‘maximum profit’ and ‘maximum density’ to ‘reasonable density’ and ‘reasonable profit,’” Santamaria said.
Commissioner Hal Valeche pointed out that the developer had already reduced the density. He made a motion to approve the request, which passed 6-1 with Santamaria opposed.
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