County OKs Minto West Text Amendment Transmission

The Palm Beach County Commission recommended approval Monday of a privately initiated request by Minto West for a comprehensive plan text amendment that would allow consideration of the company’s plans for the nearly 3,000-acre former Callery-Judge Grove site.

Over the protests of dozens of residents and an 11-0 recommendation last month by the Palm Beach County Planning Commission, the commissioners voted 6-1 with Commissioner Jess Santamaria dissenting to transmit Minto’s request to the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity, noting that the county will have the final approval authority for the development.

Public hearings and votes on whether or not to allow the proposal are scheduled for this summer and fall.

Minto recently purchased the Callery-Judge property for $51 million. The land has a future land-use approval for up to 2,996 homes and up to 235,000 square feet of non-residential uses. The company is requesting the necessary land-use changes to allow up to 6,500 homes and about 1.4 million square feet of workplace and community-serving commercial uses.

Although county staff said the amendment would enable them to research the merits and issues of the request, numerous residents opposed to Minto’s proposal asked that the commissioners not approve it in order to send a message that a less-intense development proposal is needed.

“I don’t think we’re in the business of sending messages, whether they’re cryptic or obvious,” said Commissioner Hal Valeche, who made the motion to transmit the request after almost two hours of deliberation and public input. “I think we’re in the business of making decisions based on our judgment and the law. I don’t think any of my fellow commissioners have made a decision about this project yet. I say that very truthfully.”

Valeche said he thought the decision to send the plan to Tallahassee for review is purely procedural.

“We’re not going to get a chance to hear the full project and then decide whether it has merit or it doesn’t unless we transmit this amendment,” he said. “My understanding is that certain elements of the Minto plan are inconsistent with our comp plan now, and in order to get a full hearing of what they are proposing, we have to make those changes, and it will come back to us with their full proposal. We’ll vote it up or down, but I think it’s really far less an issue than people are making it.”

Planning Director Lorenzo Aghemo said the request had been privately initiated by Minto to revise agricultural enclave provisions in the county’s comprehensive land use plan.

“I just want to make it perfectly clear that this is not a review of the proposed development,” he said. “It is not a review of the future land use amendment application. All that is in front of you today is whether to initiate the text amendment process requested by the applicant.”

Palm Beach County Mayor Priscilla Taylor pointed out that if the application were voted down, under recently enacted state law, it would still go forward.

Principal Planner Bryan Davis said the original site was put into citrus production in the mid-1960s and has been in citrus production ever since, although production has declined in the past 15 years due to citrus blight.

The parcel has always been viewed as being in a unique position as a potential commercial focus for the central-western communities, he said.

“Many planning studies have been done over the years that identify the parcel as a central hub for balancing potential uses in the area,” Davis said. “As you all know, it’s largely surrounded by rural residential estates or other agricultural-residential uses. This is, if you’re going to address it, probably one of the best places.”

He pointed out that the most recent study, the now-defunct Central Western Communities Sector Plan, which took nearly 10 years to develop, concluded that the Callery-Judge property was the appropriate location for commercial uses.

In 2005, Callery-Judge’s owners applied for a development of regional impact, proposing 10,000 homes and more than 4 million square feet of non-residential uses, as well as attempting to address water and drainage issues. The application was approved by the Department of Community Affairs, which is now the Department of Economic Opportunity, as well as the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council, but the county commission voted down the application in 2007.

However, the applicant successfully petitioned the state legislature in 2006 for a statute creating the Agricultural Enclave Act, written specifically for the Callery-Judge property, which allows the owner of an undeveloped property to develop in keeping with the surrounding property.

“It gets them through most of the process, but it does not get them an approval,” Davis said. “This is all done for the specific purposes of discouraging sprawl while protecting landowner rights.”

In 2008, Callery-Judge invoked the Agricultural Enclave Act and the commissioners adopted amendments to the comp plan that incorporated elements of the act. This got the land its vested approval for 2,996 homes. “To date, it is the only agricultural enclave approved in the state,” Davis noted.

Davis stressed that the current question was whether to approve a text amendment to the comp plan, not the specifics of the proposed development. “These will all be considered at future hearings with full staff analysis, recommendations and a presentation,” he said.

Davis said the staff recommendation was to initiate the text amendments.

“This would authorize staff to holistically analyze and evaluate all components of the project,” he said. “It would allow staff to determine if the project complies with and furthers the goals and policies of the comprehensive plan. It would allow staff to address and determine if additional changes are needed to ensure consistency with the uniqueness of the ag enclave statute, and finally, we can determine whether or not significant and quantifiable public benefits can be achieved with this project.”

Planner Donaldson Hearing, representing the applicant, reiterated that the application was only to initiate a text amendment and specifics would be discussed at future meetings, and that Minto West representatives would continue to have public meetings with nearby residents. “We would request that you proceed so that we can bring back a full analysis, and you can make a fully informed decision based on facts,” Hearing said.

During more than an hour of public input, predominantly from residents opposed to the project, attorney Frank Palin, representing the Indian Trail Improvement District, said the Minto West project would have a dramatic impact on the district and pointed out that the ITID board adopted a motion opposing the Minto West project as presented with 6,500 units.

Taylor said it was her understanding that the only thing the commission was considering was whether to allow the initiation of text amendments. “This is the only way staff will be able to review the actual plan,” she said.

Aghemo agreed. “We’re not here to evaluate or for you to consider the future land use amendment and the proposed development,” he said. “That’s going to happen at a later time. We have a public hearing that will come back to you for transmittal, and it will come back to you again for final adoption, but that’s not what we’re here for today.”

He pointed out that several years ago, the commission established a process by which a property owner who has a site-specific amendment could initiate a comp plan text amendment request.

Palm Beach County Planning Commission Member Dennis Lipp noted that his advisory board had voted 11-0 not to approve the text amendment to send a message to Minto.

“I sat there through the discussions and everything that you heard Lorenzo say,” Lipp said. “The text amendments that they’re talking about would have occurred in a normal course of time anyway, so these are technical things that need to be done. The planning commission took this vote unanimously not to initiate as a signal to Minto, which is a multinational company. I’m sure that a company as large as theirs, with as many lawyers as they [have], knew that they had four votes up there someplace before they went and spent their $51 million. We already approved 2,996 homes. That’s what they bought. That’s what they get.”

“We are not bound by the planning board,” Taylor replied. “They are only advisory.”