Meeting Puts Focus On Preservation Of The Ag Reserve

About 100 people attending a meeting hosted by County Commissioner Jess Santamaria on Wednesday heard a preview of a workshop the Palm Beach County Commission will hold Tuesday on the future of the 22,000-acre Agricultural Reserve, located south of Wellington.

Palm Beach County Principal Planner Isaac Hoyos said the Ag Reserve is a unique area that seldom, if ever, freezes and has soil qualities that make it ideal for growing produce.

“For that reason, one of the goals is to preserve agriculture and wetlands there, but allow for limited residential and commercial development,” Hoyos said.

The county developed its Ag Reserve Master Plan in 1999, the same year voters approved a $100 million bond issue to preserve agricultural areas. Hoyos said the Ag Reserve Master Plan was intended to support farmers by creating entitlement options, support the voter-approved bond issue and provide a basis for land preservation in the county’s comprehensive plan.

At a workshop in 2012, commissioners reaffirmed support for the Ag Reserve and gave direction to enhance agriculture by allowing packing plants in the reserve and enhancing provisions for green markets.

However, there have been recent requests to allow additional commercial locations at sites in the Ag Reserve, and allow some of the residential densities to be relocated from the traditional marketplace developments approved in the area. The county developed a 60/40 concept, where the underlying one-unit-per-five-acre density could be transferred to 40 percent of the land, leaving the remaining portion for agriculture and open space.

According to the commission’s Tuesday agenda information, about 10,500 acres, or nearly half of the Ag Reserve, is in agricultural use, with 7,300 acres in row crops, more than 1,700 acres in nurseries, 1,000 acres in equestrian uses, and more than 400 acres in other agricultural-related uses. The agricultural activity occurs on nearly 6,200 acres set aside as agricultural preserves, on more than 2,500 acres with no development approvals and on nearly 1,800 acres of unbuilt land with residential development approvals.

Former County Commissioner Karen Marcus spoke at the Wednesday meeting, urging the protection of the Ag Reserve. While most people recognize the importance of the Ag Reserve, Marcus said that there has been renewed pressure to develop in the reserve. She noted that farmers get their financing based on the land’s underlying residential designation and development rights, which she felt was a strange way to finance, but it puts farmers under pressure to sell.

“My point and the message is we are seeing that pressure again,” Marcus said. “We have developers and some farmers who might not want to farm any longer, and to allow them to sell is a huge mistake.”

Marcus encouraged people attending that evening to attend the workshop on Tuesday and voice their opinions.

Joanne Davis, community planner with the 1,000 Friends of Florida, said she didn’t buy the farmers’ lament.

“I’ve been at this for a really long time,” Davis said. “We sat down and talked about the Ag Reserve and the difficulties and financing, and how to get vegetables to market on time. One of most the annoying things I hear is, ‘I don’t want to farm anymore. My kids don’t want to farm. I have to sell to a developer.’ This just isn’t true.”

She said more and more people are returning to local-based agriculture.

“We’ve got farmers in this county who grow for the Breakers hotel exclusively,” she said. “The farmers who want to sell are blowing smoke.”

Davis said she did not feel farmers selling out to developers is sustainable. “Once homes are built, the developer is gone,” she said. “Farming is sustainable.”

She recommended going to Bedner’s Market in the Ag Reserve west of Boynton Beach to taste “the sweetest strawberries on earth.”

“I think this is one of the best hidden treasures that Palm Beach County has,” she said, suggesting signs that say “Welcome to the Agricultural Reserve of Palm Beach County, Home of the Nation’s Winter Vegetables.”

Dagmar Brahs, president of the Coalition of West Boynton Residential Associations, said the development of commercial agricultural interests along the Lyons Road corridor, which opened recently, has generated pressure from other agricultural property owners to start their own businesses or sell to developers.

“Agriculture is hard, and I have sympathy for people who don’t want to do it anymore,” she said. “The problem is the value of their land is not as high as they think.”


ABOVE: Former County Commissioner Karen Marcus speaks about the Agricultural Reserve.