The Palm Beach County Commission in a 4-3 vote on Wednesday, Feb. 2 agreed to initiate the transmittal process for a controversial privately initiated amendment to the county’s comprehensive plan. The GL Homes proposal would relocate some of its residential rights at Indian Trails Grove, west of The Acreage, to the Agricultural Reserve west of Delray Beach.
In exchange, GL Homes will dedicate 1,600 acres within Indian Trails Grove to Palm Beach County for water resources. The transfer would reduce the number of homes there by 1,285 from 3,897 to 2,612. In exchange, the transfer would allow GL Homes to build residential units on the Hyder West property it owns off State Road 7 west of Delray Beach.
County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay told the Town-Crier that the commissioners voted to allow the developer to present a formal proposal for the privately initiated amendment, whereupon the board would vote whether or not to approve the formal transmittal.
The commissioners spent more than five hours discussing the pros and cons of the plan, while also receiving public opinion on the proposal. McKinlay pointed out that she, not the developer, had proposed the privately initiated amendment.
The vote did not approve the proposal itself. Planning Director Ramsay Bulkeley explained that it gives staff direction to research details of the land swap it had not yet had the ability to do.
“There are some technical questions,” Bulkeley said. “Part of the process to move us forward is to really dig in deep with staff and do all the hard research.”
Mayor Robert Weinroth said initiation would not be a commitment, but an opportunity to figure out whether the proposal is realistic.
Bulkeley said researching the proposal would be time consuming for staff but not beyond its capability.
During public comment, many residents, homeowners and environmental groups spoke both for and against the proposal, with some asking for more research.
Indian Trail Improvement District Vice President Betty Argue pointed out that the ITID board had voted to support the proposed land swap in 2016 and again more recently, noting that the proposal has regional benefits, not just for ITID.
District 5 Commissioner Maria Sachs said she did not favor having a private developer use county staff to do research she felt the developer should be doing.
“My position is we can’t do this,” Sachs said. “We should not do this. We’ve been here all day for one reason, because a commissioner wanted, and it is her right to do so, and I think she had a very good purpose. There is a very important water issue here.”
She pointed out that 1,000 Friends of Florida had agreed with McKinlay that there is a water resource issue in Indian Trails Grove.
“If a developer wants to initiate a process for us to review their land swap, we’re here, that’s what we’re doing, that’s our job, but right now, we’re here about water,” Sachs said. “We do not need to have a land swap to teach us about water. We need to make sure our water resources are taken care of. I would encourage us as a county to use our authority to get to the solution to the problem. We have the money to do it. Let’s move forward and not swap land to initiate a review of water resources in Indian Trails Grove.”
McKinlay said she was trying to balance preservation with change going on in the county. “The idea of a plan is it’s a living, breathing document that sometimes warrants change,” she said.
McKinlay noted that Indian Trails Grove is being actively farmed now.
“Although they are talking about giving us 1,600 acres, their very preliminary proposal, you’re talking 2,682 acres that is farmland right now, and GL Homes will be paying more than a half-million dollars to even initiate and file this text amendment,” she said. “For them to do the work and explore projects that could happen on this particular land, it’s up to us to decide whether or not we want to approve that.”
McKinlay pointed out that the proposed swap of 670 acres in Hyder West for 1,600 acres in Indian Trails Grove is a net increase in farmland production of 922 acres.
“If we don’t do a water project on this, we’re still going to have more farmland if this swap goes through,” she said, pointing out that the land is farmed by John Hundley, one of the best farmers in the country. “It’s not swampland, and anybody who came forward and said it is swampland, it is not swampland. It’s actually under agricultural production. You’re probably buying those products that are grown on that land.”
After hours of discussion, the commissioners voted to approve transmission 4-3. Sachs was joined in opposition by commissioners Mack Bernard and Dave Kerner.