Preserve the Reserve
BY JEFF PERLMAN
Editor’s Note: Edible Palm Beach welcomes commentary that furthers the cause of sustainability in our readership area. Jeff Perlman is a former mayor of Delray Beach and the cofounder of Your Delray Boca, an online community (yourdelrayboca.com). This piece originally appeared on that site and has been edited for this page.
When I was a young reporter, I did a series of articles about Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach.
It was called “Portraits of Atlantic Avenue” and the series had a theory: If you traveled the length of the avenue east to west, from State Road A1A to State Road 441, you could experience most of what Florida had to offer; from a beach and a traditional downtown, to historic minority neighborhoods and suburban sprawl, to farms and ranches, to alligators west of 441—it was all on one street. But today, one big part of western Atlantic Avenue is fast disappearing: the fields of peppers and tomatoes that once made Palm Beach County the winter vegetable capital of the world.
I spent many days reporting in those fields and evenings at the migrant camps that were hidden north and south of West Atlantic Avenue. It was the 1980s, and migrant farmworkers were everywhere.
These days, development has put enormous pressure on this western farm area known as the Agricultural Reserve (“Ag Reserve”). Despite a $100 million investment made by taxpayers about 15 years ago to preserve this farmland, the Ag Reserve is facing pressure from a group of landowners who are pushing big changes. They want more flexibility in building rules—changes that could potentially open up more of the Ag Reserve to non-agricultural development.
Lining up on the opposite side are neighborhood associations and environmentalists who want to stop sprawl and keep farming viable.
The Palm Beach County Commission has authorized a series of roundtable meetings to discuss the rules. Out of those discussions, county staff could develop options for the commission to consider.
According to county records, 5,412 homes have been built in the reserve, with another 4,913 approved but not yet built. The changes being pushed could add even more homes and possibly 200 additional acres opened for commercial development.
Ironically, the push to open up the Ag Reserve for more development comes at a time when the “farm to table” food movement is sweeping the nation. From coast to coast, consumers are coveting locally sourced fruit, vegetables and meats. The movement has spurred new restaurants, commercial kitchens, markets, food companies, craft manufacturers and even new magazines and tourism opportunities.
Losing our farmland may work for short-term profiteers; but for long-term community viability, it seems wiser to build on our agricultural heritage. Rather than paving paradise to put up yet another 55-and-over development of cookie-cutter homes, encouraging agriculture and sustainable living would be a better strategy.
With our climate, perhaps we should aspire to become the East Coast Napa—but for vegetables and urban farming rather than wine. Just a thought.