Water Cooler Wednesday: Preserve the Preserve

Harvesting in the Ag Reserve

Harvesting in the Ag Reserve

When I was a young reporter, I did a series of articles about Atlantic Avenue.

It was called “Portraits of Atlantic Avenue” and the series had a theory: if you travelled the length of Atlantic Ave from the ocean to 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, condos to Alligators west of 441– it was all on one street.

But today one big part of Atlantic 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 Atlantic Ave. It was the 1980s and migrant farmworkers were everywhere.

These days, development has put enormous pressure on what is known as the Agricultural Reserve. Despite a $100 million investment by taxpayers to preserve farmland made about 15 years ago, 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 reserve to development.

Lining up on the opposite side are neighborhood associations and environmentalists who want to stop sprawl and keep farming viable.

The 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.

The movement to open up the 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.

It would seem to be a good strategy to encourage agriculture and sustainable living rather than pave paradise to put up yet another 55 and over community of cookie cutter homes.

With our climate, perhaps we should aspire to become an east coast Napa, but for vegetables and urban farming rather than wine.

Years ago, there was a planning movement called “Eastward Ho” that encouraged development in the eastern parts of Palm Beach County, where infrastructure, schools and downtowns already exist.

Losing our farm land may work for short term profits, but long term it seems we should build on our agricultural heritage. Just a thought…