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Mecca Farms regains agricultural zoning from commissioners

Sun-Sentinel - 3/14/2007 12:00:00 AM
by Dianna Cahn

In a decision hailed by environmentalists, Palm Beach County commissioners on Tuesday voted unanimously to restore the agricultural zoning that Mecca Farms had before the Scripps Research Institute project was ever proposed there.

But the future of Mecca Farms took another twist when commissioners revealed a new proposal that would divest the western citrus grove of its development rights by leveraging future property taxes in yet-to-be-built adjacent communities.

The decision to roll back zoning on the 1,919-acre site was intended to defuse the remaining environmental lawsuits brought on by the Scripps project. Those lawsuits drove the county to move Scripps to Jupiter in 2005, leaving commissioners searching for ways to recoup a $60.5 million investment in Mecca.

"We had staff meeting on Friday and it was a unanimous decision by all that there was nothing to be gained by continuing to hold on to the Mecca property with Scripps approvals on it," County Administrator Bob Weisman told commissioners. He said the original land use designation of one unit in 10 acres is the only one that "absolutely has an approved status."

Commissioners were about to vote when Mary McCarty said she'd just had a discussion with John Markey of EB Developers, which has a 1,300-acre property in the Loxahatchee citrus groves where Mecca Farms is located.

Tens of thousands of homes are proposed for the citrus groves around Mecca, including proposals by GL Homes and Callery-Judge Groves.

The proposal, which Markey outlined later, would call for issuing bonds to purchase Mecca and build roads by leveraging future property taxes from homes built on the western properties. Mecca would be preserved as wetlands.

"In a nutshell," Markey said later, "it's the future model for growth in Florida."

McCarty said she was not sure whether she supported the idea, but it was interesting.

"There is an opportunity for everyone to win here," she said.

She proposed delaying the vote on Mecca's zoning because Markey raised concerns that the zoning change could affect valuation of the site, and impact EB's proposal.

Commissioner Burt Aaronson agreed there were benefits to the proposal, including recouping taxpayer dollars for Mecca, lessening future traffic, paying for roads, and possibly having money to reinvest in bringing more biotechnology institutions to Palm Beach County.

"A week won't kill it," Aaronson said of delaying the vote. "Don't forget, we jumped into this whole thing to buy Mecca in a week."

Weisman disagreed. No matter what future proposal is raised for Mecca, county staff believe the zoning would have to be brought back to its original one unit per 10 acres and then amended.

"Nothing changes the legal situation we find ourselves in," Weisman said. "We believe we need to go back to ground zero to do anything else."

Commissioners took public comment supporting the restoration of Mecca's agricultural land use, then voted to pass it.

And they agreed to hear more on the EB proposal.

Joanne Davis, an environmental lawyer representing 1000 Friends of Florida, pointed out to commissioners that the taxpayers already paid once for Mecca. This, she said, sounded like a proposal asking taxpayers to pay twice.