The Royal Palm Beach Village Council is in the process of approving several requests submitted by the Wantman Group that will lead to the development of about 110 acres on the south side of Southern Blvd. just west of State Road 7 known as Acme Ranches and the Big Dog Ranch Rescue property.
The property, now mostly rural residential homes, is slated to become a development with single-family and multifamily homes.
Following annexation procedures over the past year, the necessary approvals are now in the form of several ordinances in either the preliminary or final approval stages, because several separate parcels are involved in the process.
The first ordinance received final approval by the council on Thursday, Dec. 17, changing the land use designation for eight tracts totaling almost 30 acres from the county’s low-density residential to the village’s multifamily, high-density designation.
A second ordinance received preliminary approval to rezone the same 30 acres from the county’s agricultural residential and planned unit development to the village’s multifamily residential district. The plan is to build 392 multifamily units on the property, which is the part of Acme Ranches located closest to Southern Blvd., opposite commercial and industrial areas on the north side of the road.
A third ordinance was the final reading of a large-scale future land use amendment for eight tracts of land totaling almost 60 acres from the county’s low-density residential to the village’s single-family land use, while a fourth ordinance received preliminary approval to rezone the same 60 acres from the county’s agricultural residential and PUD zoning districts to the village’s single-family residential. That land is slated to become 131 zero-lot-line homes.
Finally, a fifth ordinance was the final reading of a land use amendment changing almost 21 acres from the county’s low-density residential to the village’s open-space/recreation. The developer plans to use that space to connect the development to Southern Blvd. by building a bridge across the C-51 Canal, connecting up to an existing signalized intersection.
All of the ordinances carried unanimously, with little discussion. The plan had been before the council at several previous meetings.
However, at last week’s meeting, two former volunteers who had worked with Bonnie and Wallace Findlay, late owners of the Bambi Wildlife Sanctuary (which was sold to the Folke Peterson Wildlife Sanctuary and later leased to Big Dog Ranch Rescue), objected to that property being developed as homes.
Barbara Perrone noted that the land had been approved by the county as a wildlife sanctuary in 1969.
“Bonnie and Wallace Findlay originally owned this land,” Perrone said. “They spent 30 years on that piece that you want to change into homes. They dedicated their lives; they were the pioneers of wildlife rescue. It was all turned over to the Folke Peterson Foundation. In 1969, there was a legal resolution that the land would remain a sanctuary. I think that land should remain a wildlife sanctuary. It’s a treasure for Palm Beach County.”
Ellen Rosenberg also wanted the current Big Dog property to remain a wildlife sanctuary.
“Tonight’s meeting is about promises made, promises kept and promises broken,” she said. “For nearly 30 years, Bonnie and Wallace Findlay ran the Bambi Wildlife Sanctuary. In 1969, they had Palm Beach County dedicate the 30 acres as a wildlife sanctuary, making sure that it would never be developed.”
In 1997, a fire destroyed the sanctuary, and Wallace died in the blaze. Before Bonnie died in 2000, she bequeathed the land and several million dollars to the Folke H. Peterson Charitable Foundation with the understanding that it would carry on the work of saving wildlife, Rosenberg said.
“The Folke Peterson Wildlife Center built a new facility in 2005,” she said. “Due to poor management, they ran out of funds and closed in 2009. They then leased the land to Big Dog Ranch Rescue, receiving permission from Palm Beach County to allow the secondary use on the land as long as wildlife remained the primary use. According to the lease, 80 percent of the land had to be used solely for wildlife.”
Rosenberg said that Folke Peterson, which still owns the land, should have refused to sell it for any purpose other than wildlife rescue. “Bonnie and Wallace Findlay were my friends,” she said. “Their ashes are buried on that land. They would be horrified to see houses being built there.”
Councilman Richard Valuntas asked the village’s legal staff whether there were any legal encumbrances that would prevent what the developer is requesting, and Village Attorney Jennifer Ashton said that she had not found any deed restrictions.
“Even deed restrictions can be undone,” she said. “There was a 1969 resolution passed by Palm Beach County on a portion of this piece of property. However, the county agreed to the voluntary annexation. Once it came into the Village of Royal Palm Beach, that resolution has no more force and effect.”
Ashton noted that there is a conservation easement on a small part of the property. “Under the Florida Statutes, as long as the property owner and the governmental entity agree, that easement has been assigned to the village,” she said. “Under Florida law, that easement can be released. Folke Peterson has gotten out of the business of wildlife, so there is no legal impediment to proceeding.”
Big Dog Ranch Rescue, meanwhile, is in the process of building a new facility of its own in Loxahatchee Groves.