Here’s how county can save millions — and farmland
Could a headline be any more inflammatory than the recent column titled, “How Palm Beach County might waste $100 million, and more”? This is the amount of the bond approved by voters in 1999 to buy land in the Agricultural Reserve.
The fact is the funds have been spent as intended and the land is all being farmed or in open space. The bond issue was never enough to preserve the entire Ag Reserve, as many residents have been led to believe.
The proceeds were sufficient to pay for 2500 acres, or 10 percent. Not one acre of this land has been rezoned for development, and in fact, an additional 7,000 acres has been preserved under the reserve’s development rules.
Here is what deserves a screaming headline: Land purchased with the bond issue might end up in developer hands, and county taxpayers could lose $15 million. This prospect is currently part of the proposed county budget and needs to be changed.
At issue is the McMurrain property, a 570-acre tract in the Ag Reserve west of State Road 7, jointly owned by the county and the South Florida Water Management District. The District is selling its acreage because it no longer fits into their water storage plans.
The land has no entitlements for anyone to build anything. It has been leased for years by a successful fifth-generation farming family.
Some want the county to repurchase the land outright. They claim the land should remain in county ownership because that was the original voter intent. They argue that would better protect the land from development pressures.
Not accurate. The voter intent was to protect farmland, and if the county bought the land, development would actually be encouraged. Here’s why:
The land could fetch over $200 million from developers. If the county owned the land, commissioners would be pressed by just about every group with a cause to address their worthy issues with such a windfall.
Even better, what a tempting way for the county commission to balance the budget without raising taxes or cutting services in a tight budget year. It would be a simple transaction. The county has the power to grant the landowner development rights and then put the cash right in the coffers.
But it is a much less attractive and more difficult deal for developers if the property is owned by agricultural interests. First, the owners would not have much of anything to sell. In addition to having zero underlying zoning rights, the land would be encumbered by deed restrictions and easements held by the county, the district, and the State Board of Trustees. A developer would have to get all three layers of government agencies to release all the restrictions. The agencies would have little incentive to release them since the private owner gets the $200 million, not the government. The county already sold 53 acres of McMurrain to the farmers to expand their hydroponic facilities in 2002.
Taxpayers simply should not have to needlessly spend $9 million. Instead, we can save the $9 million, plus get paid an additional $6 million, and keep the land in agriculture with three layers of encumbrances, not just one. This is money that could be set aside in reserves (to prepare for a $25 million budget hole with the anticipated passage of the homestead referendum next year), or used for pressing public needs, or, gasp, even to reduce the tax rate a bit.
Sometimes rhetoric can overwhelm the facts. Make it tougher for commissioners to sell to developers, not easier, and save $15 million.