Palm Beach County can help seniors without ruining the Ag Reserve | Randy Schultz

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The challenge has been to keep the Agricultural Reserve Area from becoming so suburbanized that farming becomes incompatible. (Joe Cavaretta/ Staff file photo)

Who could be against letting Palm Beach County residents “age in place?” As they got older and frailer and had to leave longtime homes, they could move to an elder care facility but stay near their support group.

It’s a wonderful idea. But it would be wrong to allow it on a large scale in the Agricultural Reserve Area.

Two developers seek to build congregate living facilities in the reserve, which runs from Clint Moore Road to Lantana Road west of the Florida Turnpike. One project is before the county commission today. Despite the projects’ lyrical names — Allegro and Poet’s Walk — the commission should remember what county voters demanded nearly 20 years ago.

That demand was to preserve as much farming and related uses in the reserve as possible. Voters were so adamant that they taxed themselves $100 million for land purchases to discourage excessive suburban-type development that could drive out farmers.

Nothing prevents the developers from building Allegro — at Clint Moore west of the turnpike — and Poet’s Walk — at Lyons Road and Atlantic Avenue west of Delray Beach. The problem is that they want to build more than the rules allow.

Allegro could have 30 beds on nearly 13 acres. The developer wants to build 235 beds. Poets Walk could have 23 beds on almost 10 acres. The developer wants 186 beds.

If you didn’t know the history of the Agricultural Reserve Area — especially that voter intent — the proposals might seem acceptable. Would 421 beds to make life better for seniors be so bad? The plan for the reserve cites a need for “additional forms of institutional uses and housing opportunities” to create “a balanced and thriving community.”

But the county’s “objective” is to “preserve the unique farmland and wetlands in order to preserve and enhance agricultural activity, environmental and water resources, and open space within the Agricultural Reserve Tier. This shall be accomplished by limiting uses to agriculture and conservation with residential development restricted to low densities (italics mine) . . .” The county also states that the reserve “shall be preserved primarily for agricultural use, reflecting the unique farmlands and wetlands within it.”

By any definition, development eight times more intense than allowed would be high-density. A project that proposed eight times more single-family homes than allowed on a property would be problematic. That doesn’t change when the project is a facility that would provide options for seniors depending on their health. A bad precedent for congregate living facilities could set a bad precedent for all types of housing.

Even those who voted for the $100 million to buy land understood that some development would happen in the reserve. The county has approved 10,000 residential units and could allow another 2,500. Rules allow two shopping centers on the east side of the reserve. The more southern one, Delray Marketplace, draws many people who live outside the reserve.

The challenge has been to keep the reserve from becoming so suburbanized that farming becomes incompatible. On one side are the benefits from green space and a healthy agriculture industry in South Florida’s only coastal farm belt. On the other is the continued pressure from developers seeking open land in Palm Beach County.

Under that pressure, county commissioners have weakened the rules here and there. They did so most recently for small farmers who complained that they couldn’t make a living but were “forced to farm” because they couldn’t make top dollar selling to developers.

GL Homes also continues to float its proposal that the company build 2,500 more homes in the reserve than rules allow in exchange for preserving land outside the reserve on which GL got approval to build. Since the commission wrongly allowed GL to build 10 times more homes on the other site, such a deal would reward GL, not the public.

On senior living facilities, county planners have offered commissioners the option of creating rules just for such projects. The Allegro developers asked to delay their planned hearing today with Poet’s Walk so the commission can provide the staff with “further direction.”

Since the staff and the planning commission had recommended denial of both projects, Allegro’s tactic amounts to a strategic retreat. A compromise might be possible, but only if the result doesn’t compromise what the public demanded.

Randy Schultz’s email address is randy@bocamag.com.

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