The Palm Beach County Commission denied a privately initiated request Wednesday by Palm Beach Aggregates to change the land-use designation of a 142-acre parcel in the Glades Area Protection Overlay from rural residential to an economic development center.
Although initiation of PBA Holdings’ request did not ensure that the amendments would be approved, it would direct staff to prepare a complete analysis of the property, according to the staff report, which recommended denial of the initiation.
The land is on the west side of the L-8 Canal north of Southern Blvd. and is part of 3,000 acres on the east and west sides of the L-8 Canal.
The west side is about 1,800 acres and includes the L-8 Reservoir owned by the South Florida Water Management District, the Palm Beach Aggregates mining operation and Florida Power & Light’s West County Energy Center. The 142 acres is in the southeast quadrant of that site, immediately west of the L-8 Canal, separated from Southern Blvd. by a smaller piece of land.
The 1,200-acre parcel east of the L-8 Canal has zoning approval for the 2,000-unit Highland Dunes development.
That zoning approval limited the future land uses on the west side to previously approved uses and was intended for future uses in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, according to Senior Planner Bryce Van Horn, who explained that the revised text amendment would allow for the development of the economic development center, but limit it to an urban service area in order to develop up to 2.7 million square feet of industrial and related uses.
“Staff’s assessment indicates that the request is contrary to the intent, purpose and objective of the overlay,” Van Horn said. “This was meant to curb westward expansion and prevent urban development from encroaching further west.”
Joni Brinkman with Urban Design Kilday Studios asked for the initiation to allow staff to further research the request.
“This does not mean the amendment will be adopted. It only means that potentially the board sees that some consideration should be given,” Brinkman said, adding that its proximity to both the western communities and the Glades would provide unique employment opportunities.
She said the power plant to the west of the site would continue to serve as a boundary to prevent future encroachment into the Everglades Agricultural Area.
Lisa Interlandi, an attorney with the Everglades Law Center, said the use is not compatible with the Glades Area Protection Overlay and asked that the commissioners follow the recommendation of county staff.
“The whole purpose of the [overlay] very specifically was to limit development to east of the L-8 Canal,” she said, pointing out that the Highland Dunes approval was granted on the condition that the land uses on the west side would not change.
Interlandi added that she thought county staff members did not have time to do planning for current projects, including climate change and sea-level rise, to embark on a project that, if approved, she said would meet strident legal challenges.
“I think it’s very ill-advised for them to waste time on this amendment, because very clearly we have critical issues that are affecting the county,” she said. “I will say that if this is approved ultimately, I very much expect it will go under the very highest level of opposition from environmental stakeholders. This is the quintessential camel’s nose under the tent.”
Interlandi added that if the applicant is really concerned about economic development, it should look to large tracts of property that have already been approved within the urban service boundaries.
John Marshall of the Arthur R. Marshall Foundation and Drew Martin with the Sierra Club also spoke against the initiation.
However, Brandon Carson of the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County said it is imperative that the county have as many industrial sites as possible from which potential job creators can select. “This property could serve as an employment center to Glades residents,” he said.
Commissioner Steve Abrams asked whether the BDB has had inquiries about that particular site, and Carson said several had looked at the site, which he termed unique in its proximity to the power plant as a reliable power source. He added that it’s 13 feet above grade with dredge material from the L-8 Canal.
Carson and another speaker said a potential user had rejected it because the land use was not in place.
Commissioner Jess Santamaria asked the speakers to name specific interested parties, but they said they were constrained by confidentiality agreements.
“I have heard that song many, many times before,” Santamaria said. “I really have to doubt the veracity of those statements.”
Commissioner Paulette Burdick agreed that the developer was given the ability to build Highland Dunes on the condition that the western overlay would be put in place.
Commissioner Hal Valeche said he thought the applicant would be going back on its agreement for the Highland Dunes approval, and also found it a stretch to deem the current uses compatible with an economic development center.
Abrams said he took a lot of heat during the Highland Dunes approval but believed it was an appropriate use, and that the power plant is the real dividing line between urban and agricultural uses.
Commissioner Shelley Vana said she felt mining, which the property is approved for, would be much worse than what is proposed.
Commissioner Mary Lou Berger said she opposed a land use change but would favor further research into the property, noting that the Highland Dunes approval came among the questionable land deals that led to the resignation and eventual imprisonment of former Commissioner Tony Masilotti.
“There is a dark cloud over this piece of property,” she said, pointing out that she was an assistant to former Commissioner Burt Aaronson during that time. “I think we need to have a dialogue about it so that everyone has a clear understanding of the history, and everyone has a clear understanding of the impacts on water.”
Santamaria made a motion to deny the initiation, which carried 4-3, with Abrams, Berger and Vana dissenting.
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