Here’s how county can save mil­lions — and farm­land

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - - VOICES & OPINION - By Steven Abrams Steven Abrams is a Palm Beach County com­mis­sioner.

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.