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Palm Beach County commissioners decide not to adopt GL Homes’ land-swap proposal

Palm Beach County commissioners voted 4-3 not to adopt GL Homes’ land-swap proposal Tuesday during a fierce meeting that endured for more than 10 hours of presentations, deliberations and an estimated 80-plus people speaking during public comment.

The final decision was met with applause from those who remained in the crowd, about half of the people present Tuesday morning.

“We are deeply disappointed by Palm Beach County Board of Commissioners’ decision today. Our public-private partnership would have provided desperately needed solutions to water quality, workforce housing, Jewish community infrastructure and so much more –- all at no cost to taxpayers,” GL Homes President Misha Ezratti said in a statement after the meeting. “Ultimately, it’s the county’s residents who will bear the true consequences of the outcome. We appreciate the thousands of residents from across Palm Beach County who supported our proposal and shared their voice.”

“With this decision, we will move forward with our approved plans to develop approximately 4,000 homes in Loxahatchee and look forward to continuing our decades of support for the Palm Beach County community.”

The meeting drew crowds of both supporters and opponents to the proposal outside the county’s building in West Palm Beach well before the discussions even started about 8 a.m.

Members from the Sierra Club Loxahatchee Group held signs and posters outside the county building expressing dissent for the plan while supporters of GL Homes’ plan stood only several feet away from the opponents, handing out T-shirts emblazoned with the words, “Approve the Reserve.”

“We need to have a county that’s of the people, by the people and for the people, not of the developers,” Rabbi Barry Silver said before the meeting amid a cluster of opponents.

The county chambers and overflow rooms were packed with seas of people donning either a lime green or a bright blue T-shirt — those clad in blue in support, and those in green opposed, as they primarily consisted of members from the Coalition of Boynton West Residential Associations, or COBWRA.

Opponents and supporters of the Ag Reserve land swap deal crowd the chambers of the Palm Beach County Commission, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023, in West Palm Beach. (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
Opponents and supporters of the Ag Reserve land swap deal crowd the chambers of the Palm Beach County Commission on Tuesday in West Palm Beach. (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

The county had been weighing GL Homes’ land swap, which proposed taking land the developer owns in a property called Indian Trails Grove and exchanging it for land in the county’s Agricultural Reserve to then offer 1,000 single-family, age-restricted homes, 277 workforce-housing units, 800 acres for a water reservoir, a 200-acre family park, 800 acres of farmland, 25 acres for a park in West Boca, 4 acres for a Chabad synagogue, 4 acres for the Jewish Family Services/Jewish Association for Residential Care and 8 acres for a Torah Academy school campus.

This type of proposal had never been pitched to the Palm Beach County Commission before, which is part of why it stirred so much contention.

The meeting began with Ezratti giving a brief speech, during which he again insisted the county’s recent growth, especially from the COVID-19 pandemic, has created challenges that need to be addressed.

“We believe that we’ve been a good, trustworthy and reliable partner in Palm Beach County,” he said. “The proposal before you today represents a unique opportunity to start down a path to address these voids.”

Misha Ezratti, President of GL Homes walks back to this seat after facing questions regarding the Ag Reserve Land swap deal in the chambers of the Palm Beach County Commission, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023, in West Palm Beach. (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
Misha Ezratti, president of GL Homes, walks back to this seat after facing questions regarding the Ag Reserve Land swap deal in the chambers of the Palm Beach County Commission on Tuesday in West Palm Beach. (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Before Kevin Ratterree, a GL Homes vice president, could begin a presentation about the proposal, commissioners lobbed questions at him and Ezratti, some of which they declined to answer.

Commissioner Marci Woodward, Commissioner Mack Bernard and Vice Mayor Maria Sachs each questioned why GL Homes has not yet developed any units on its Indian Trails Grove property despite possessing the title to the land since 2005.

“It is not uncommon to acquire property and sit on it until commencing development,” Ratterree said.

Bernard also asked how much money GL Homes has made on its developments so far.

“Respectfully, we’re a private company, we are not going to disclose that,” Ratterree said.

This is not the first time the county has discussed a major proposal to the Ag Reserve invoked by a GL Homes proposal.

In 2009, the county commissioners at the time granted the housing developer an approval allowing GL Homes to almost double the size of a new neighborhood in the Ag Reserve and build almost 1,000 new homes on nearly 1,000 acres between Lyons Road and U.S. 441.

Then, in 2021, GL Homes finalized a deal resulting in at least 277 new homes located south of Boynton Beach Boulevard and west of Lyons Road.

Len Lindahl, a former assistant executive director at the water management district, who was hired by GL Homes to help oversee the water-resource project, also gave a presentation about the water project during the meeting, which was met by several questions from commissioners.

Bernard questioned why GL Homes has not yet finished answering inquiries about the water project from the city of West Palm Beach, which would be impacted by the water project and is a city within the area Bernard represents.

“We’re supposed to vote to approve this water project, and there’s been no analysis, no meeting?” Bernard said.

Bernard’s doubts echoed concerns from Christopher McVoy, a soil scientist and the Lake Worth Beach vice mayor, who spoke during the meeting and had previously presented issues with the water project during a COBWRA meeting on Oct. 6, where he questioned to what extent water quality would be improved as well as by what percentage discharge would be reduced, both of which would be objectives of the project.

During the meeting, McVoy expressed skepticism about what GL Homes has presented about the water project because he said it contained contradictory claims. “Water projects here in South Florida take a long time. … They take a long time for a reason because people study them very carefully,” he said.

County Planning Director Kevin Fischer then discussed the county’s assessment of the proposal, saying the proposal “violates fundamental concepts of the comprehensive plan” within the staff presentation.

County staff also discussed how GL Homes’ inclusion in its plan for a public park would not be entirely feasible as proposed because no funding from the county is currently available. The county would need at least 10 years to conjure the money required for park creation in the proposed area.

Staff outlined problems with the water resource project, too, such as how the South Florida Water Management District has stated it needs to conduct a risk assessment analysis before accepting the project in that area.

Three hours of public comment followed the slew of presentations and discussion, and a split of supporters and opponents came forward to address the commission.

Supporters, many of whom said they live in GL Homes’ communities, cited the desire for the community benefits that would come with the proposal that the county otherwise could not provide on its own, such as the water project, Chabad synagogue, park and workforce housing units, while opponents voiced concern about “opening Pandora’s Box” — as one COBWRA member put it — for other developers to build out the Ag Reserve, overhauling the land’s original intent and creating other problems, such as increased traffic congestion.

Karen Marcus, the president of Sustainable Palm Beach County and a former county commissioner, said she is against the proposal. Like those in favor, Marcus said the impacts would be generational, if approved, but not in a positive manner.

“This will set the tone for what you do for the rest of the Ag Reserve,” she said to commissioners.

Danielle Hartman, the president and CEO of Ruth & Norman Rales Jewish Family Services, said her organization works with seniors in need of workforce housing, which is why she is in support of the land swap proposal.

“This project … would create a model that could be duplicated around the country for seniors and adults with disabilities,” she said.

Steve Wallace, the president of COBWRA, said more than 7,500 people signed a petition against the swap and urged commissioners to consider their pleas and vote against it.

More than 120 people had originally submitted requests to speak for public comment, but several left before they had the chance to speak.

The final part of the meeting involved lengthy statements from the commissioners providing their thoughts on the information from the day.

Sachs, who has always been opposed to the swap, said she wants to find ways for the government to give supporters of GL Homes’ plan what they were looking forward to if the plan had been approved.

“This is a movement by people,” she said. “I’m very honored to serve you the people, and I will never let you down when it comes to taking a function of government and giving it over to a private entity.”

Commissioner Sara Baxter, who voted to approve the proposal during a 5-2 vote in May, said development is inevitable, so the commission should be ushering it in in a way that provides people with the most benefits.

“This isn’t a matter of if something gets built, it’s a matter of where and when it gets built,” she said. “It is our job and our responsibilities that if this is going to happen to represent our areas and to get the most community benefits that we can out of it.”

Commissioner Mack Bernard, who voted in favor of the project in May, has since changed his tune on the proposal as the proposal’s “sweeteners,” especially the water project, no longer sufficed as reason enough to move forward with the project.

“I wanted to support this project because I represent the City of West Palm Beach, and I want to protect the city of West Palm Beach water supply but this project does not do it,” he said. “You can put lipstick on a pig and call it a land swap.”

Mayor Gregg Weiss, who also voted to approve the project in May, also voted to deny the proposal Tuesday night. Commissioner Maria Marino and Commissioner Michael Barnett were the only two commissioners who voted in favor of the project, which fell in line with their votes at May’s meeting.

“There are too many loose ends in what’s being proposed to us,” Weiss said. “I think there’s too many unanswered questions.”

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