New development proposed for old citrus groves, mining land and pastures could bring nearly 23,000 homes — along with new shopping centers, a college campus and possibly even a spring training baseball stadium.
“This is a dramatic change,” Royal Palm Beach City Councilman Jeff Hmara said. “Let’s just be sure that we are doing this in the least offensive way possible.”
The development proposals now in the works target some of the largest properties still available in Palm Beach County, without pressing all the way west into sugar cane country.
Development pressures that cooled during the Great Recession have been revived now that Palm Beach County home prices are rising again. Now the race is on for landowners to win development approval and get building, before there’s another dip in the real estate market.
The potential influx of suburbia scares Loxahatchee-area residents worried about losing the rural lifestyle in an area where horseback riders share unpaved roads with commuters and chicken coops can be found along with backyard pools.
The development proposal also worries those in Wellington, Royal Palm Beach and other nearby towns, concerned about a parade of additional traffic overwhelming already crowded roads, including Okeechobee and Southern Boulevard.
Developers dispute the concerns, saying new communities will bring job-producing businesses in addition to homes. And development backers contend that building new shopping destinations, doctors’ offices and other community attractions will benefit existing residents along with their new neighbors.
The County Commission has already approved revived plans to build 2,000 homes on 1,200 acres once intended for rock mining at Palm Beach Aggregates.
Commissioners in October gave the go-ahead to Highland Dunes development, on Southern Boulevard about 2 1/2 miles west of Seminole Pratt Whitney Road, which had been put on hold back in 2008 after South Florida’s building boom went bust.
A few miles away from Highland Dunes, Minto Communities has proposes building 6,500 homes on the 4,000-acre former Callery-Judge Grove, split by Seminole Pratt Whitney Road. That would be more than twice the number of homes currently allowed.
In addition to the new homes, plans for “Minto West” call for 1.4 million square feet of space for shops, offices, manufacturing and even research and development. The proposal includes building a 3,000-student college campus and room for a baseball stadium aimed at attracting a spring training team. Minto West is expected to go before the County Commission for initial consideration next summer. The number of homes allowed for Minto West could set a precedent for neighboring Indian Trail Groves, about 5,000 acres G.L. Homes has long planned for development.
On Northlake Boulevard a few miles east of Seminole Pratt Whitney Road, developers propose building 7,600 homes on the nearly 5,000-acre Vavrus Ranch.
The Avernir community would also include 1.7 million square feet of space for retail development as well as medical and other professional offices. Developers envision adding a golf course, assisted living facility, hotel and room for a college campus.
Unlike the others, plans for the Vavrus property have to go through Palm Beach Gardens’ approval process.
Building industry representatives say simple supply and demand is driving this revived development push.
“We are running out of land,” said long-time Palm Beach County development consultant Robert Bentz, whose firm is part of the team working on the Avernir proposal. “These properties have been sitting there for a very long time waiting for the market to come [back].”
Development proposals have to show that local roads can accommodate the traffic that comes from their building plans in order to proceed. Road widening or other improvements can be required if projections raise concerns about road congestion. Development critics have raised concerns that these traffic projections don’t give enough weight to future building to come and that it’s inevitable that allowing thousands of new homes will only make traffic worse.
But development consultant Kieren Kilday, who represented the Highland Dunes project, said property owners should be held responsible for the traffic expected from their proposals, others already submitted and land uses approved for surrounding properties. “That’s how the system works,” Kilday said. “There isn’t any logical reason to try to take into account what someone might want. … It’s pure speculation.”
The County Commission will be factoring in the cumulative traffic effects of the proposed developments as well as residents’ quality of life concerns when the projects come up for a vote, Palm B each County Mayor Steven Abrams said. “These are parcels that have development rights,” Abrams said. “The question is how much.”
County Commissioner Jess Santamaria, whose district includes the Loxahatchee area, worries that developer and building industry influence over local government will open the door too far. Santamaria — a developer turned politician — said it will take public pushback, both at local government meetings at that the polls, to keep overdevelopment from “destroying the quality of life.” “The people are fed up,” Santamaria said. “They looked for a quiet, peaceful place 20 years ago [and] now it is becoming another Miami-Dade. It is becoming another Broward.”