Selling the farm     

Fifteen years ago, by a 2-to-1 margin, Palm Beach County voters billed themselves $100 million for a program designed to retain as much farming as possible in the county’s Agricultural Reserve area. A deceptive campaign in 1999 sought to defeat the program, and the pushback has never really stopped. The latest push came Tuesday.

In urbanized South Florida, the Agricultural Reserve is unique. It covers about 25,000 acres from Clint Moore Road to roughly Hypoluxo Road west of the turnpike. The reserve protects the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge —part of the Everglades—from suburban sprawl. Compare southwest Palm Beach County to western Broward County, where subdivisions border the Everglades.

In addition, farms and packing houses in the reserve provide winter vegetables that supply not just this area but much of the nation. That local agriculture industry has allowed many restaurants in Boca Raton and Delray Beach to start advertising farm-to-table cuisine.

Now, though, some of the reserve's small farmers and nursery owners —don’t underestimate the crop value of South Florida’s nursery industry— say the rules that allow just one home per five acres make it hard to sell their land for development or to get loans. (The loans are made by banks that consider the land more attractive collateral if it held more potential for development.) On Tuesday, those landowners and their representatives who want the county to nearly double the number of homes that could be built and allow more commercial development, faced off before the Palm Beach County Commission with those who favor preservation, as the voters intended.

After the four-hour hearing, commissioners voted to hold discussions with farmers to hear their gripes. Neither side won, but the farmers didn’t lose, which is the bigger story. The backstory could be that the idea for Tuesday’s hearing came from Commissioner Mary Lou Berger, who represents the reserve. For many years, Berger was an aide to Burt Aaronson, who represented basically the same district from 1992 until 2012. Aaronson supported the 1999 referendum—speaking out against opponents who claimed falsely that the $100 million could have been used instead for schools—but in later years became very friendly to companies like GL Homes that wanted to develop more of the Agricultural Reserve.

Any decision probably remains months away. But watch for commissioners who say that a few “minor” changes would help the farmers without sacrificing the reserve itself. Enough “minor” changes, and the effort to keep faith with what the public wants in the Agricultural Reserve would run into a major problem. 

Tally-hello

New FAU President John Kelly, who began work March 1, is already getting raves from faculty members and administrators for his personal touch, his openness and his energy. He’s also showing some savvy.

Kelly spent 25 years at Clemson, and higher education runs on state-by-state rules. One knock on Kelly during the interviews was that he was an out-of-stater. George Lemieux, a former chief of staff to Gov. Charlie Crist whom Crist appointed to the U.S. Senate, argued that he should get the FAU job because his supposed Tallahassee connections would benefit the university.

FAU trustees disagreed, but the message wasn’t lost on Kelly. Though he started work just as the legislative session opened, he’s already registered as a lobbyist and has been to Tallahassee twice. For FAU, the real fundraising still happens with the legislators who control the budget and education committees.

FAU vs. GEO—again   

Speaking of FAU, some students protested Monday outside Royal Palm Yacht & Country Club, where The GEO Group chairman and CEO George Zoley lives. The students didn’t go to Zoley’s house, perhaps assuming—like many—that the guardhouse at Royal Palm means the community is gated and the streets are private. It isn’t, and they aren’t.

Anyway, the students were calling attention to hunger strikes at federal detention centers that The GEO Group manages. A group spokesman denied that conditions are substandard, and said the company follows policies set by the Immigration, Customs and Enforcement (ICE), which is part of the Department of Homeland Security.

Still, the demonstration—small as it was—shows again that FAU caught a break last year when GEO pulled the $500,000 a year donation which it had donated for naming rights to the football stadium and was meant to run for 12 years. Whatever one thinks of GEO’s record, and however much FAU wants to sell the naming rights, would FAU really have wanted to explain to a dozen freshman classes that the stadium was named for a company that runs prisons and detention centers?

Delray: Dealing for dollars                                      

Last week saw another suspicious vote by the Delray Beach City Commission, a vote that seems designed to help a special interest and not the taxpayers.

The issue was Auburn Trace, a low-income housing project in Delray’s southwest neighborhood. The project dates to the late 1980s. To get the 256 units built, the city gave the Auburn Group—private developers—more than $5 million in loans and grants from various sources, with the city expecting to be repaid for a $3.8 million loan.

As a staff report notes, though the project got built, “. . .almost immediately, the terms of the financing agreement began to change.” And the change was not in the city’s favor. Interest payments didn’t come, the duration of the loan got longer, and the city’s position as a creditor got weaker.

Yet last Tuesday, before a lame-duck commission and with Mayor Cary Glickstein and Commissioner Shelly Petrolia spending spring break with their children, an item added the previous afternoon called for an affiliate of Auburn Trace, Ltd., to give Delray Beach $1,050,000—seven years of interest payments—in exchange for yet another loan of $4.3 million, to be repaid basically on terms the developers decide.

A report by Delray Beach’s finance department called the information from the developers “incomplete,” and recommended against approval, so city staff could work on a more favorable deal for Delray.

“Even were the terms to be attractive,” the report said, “based on history, there is little confidence in Auburn’s ability to fulfill the obligations.” Auburn’s lender had told Delray Beach, the report said, that the company “was in default on its loans to the bank and the city.”

Yet Adam Frankel, Angeleta Gray—whose last meeting, after her reelection loss on March 11, is tonight— and Al Jacquet conditionally approved the deal. Frankel said he wanted Delray to stop acting “like loan sharks.” In fact, Delray has been the prey, not the predator. Jacquet stressed the need for affordable housing, which was beside the point: the best interest of Delray Beach taxpayers. The city’s acting finance director—who rebutted every attempt to denigrate the report and defend the deal—said the commission should say not only “no,” but “Hell, no.”

It all seemed staged, especially since Glickstein and Petrolia would have been the ones to ask tough questions, and had asked that the issue be delayed until they returned. Yet the developers insisted that they needed a quick decision, without persuasively explaining why. The idea that $1 million now would make up for the bad aspects of the deal is absurd. Expect more on this story.

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About the Author

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.