The Baltimore Sun

Palm Beach County gives Big Sugar, new industry a boost in Glades

South Florida Sun Sentinel

By opening more former Everglades land to new industry, Palm Beach County commissioners Tuesday decided the lure of jobs was worth a likely legal fight with environmentalists.

The commission voted to change its development rules and allow industrial uses on 318 acres south of South Bay owned by sugar giant Florida Crystals. The land is part of hundreds of thousands of acres of former Everglades that was drained to make way for agriculture.

Commissioners contend they are angling to provide opportunities for new jobs in Glades communities plagued with unemployment. Florida Crystals envisions warehouses, manufacturing and shipping goods to and from the site.

"The faster we get it done, the more people we can put to work," Commissioner Burt Aaronson said.

Environmental groups counter that the industrial center threatens to open the door to more development and get in the way of Everglades restoration.

There are other properties that could be used to attract new businesses that benefit Glades residents, said Joanne Davis, of the growth watchdog group 1000 Friends of Florida.

"This is the wrong site," Davis said. "This has sort of unraveled into a typical land use that goes on and on in the history of Florida."

Florida Crystals is vying to become the site of a proposed "inland port" -- an industrial distribution center that would link coastal ports from Miami to Palm Beach County, delivering cargo to and from the coast via truck routes and rail lines crisscrossing the state and linking with routes to the rest of the country.

At least six South Florida sites are vying for the center.

Palm Beach County backs Florida Crystals' plan to put the center on 318 acres of farmland near the company's Okeelanta power plant and U.S. 27 in western Palm Beach County.

Tuesday, the county's approval went further by allowing industrial development on the land, even if the project goes elsewhere. The county did require that future development there be planned in coordination with the South Florida Water Management District in an attempt to ensure that it doesn't get in the way of Everglades restoration.

Starting construction and generating jobs would still be years away.

State regulators, who have already raised concerns about moving more industry into the agricultural area, must still sign off on the proposal.

Environmental groups, including the Everglades Coalition and 1000 Friends of Florida, object to the location and could file legal challenges that delay moving forward.

Everglades restoration plans call for South Florida taxpayers to invest half a billion dollars to buy 73,000 acres of U.S. Sugar Corp. farmland south of Lake Okeechobee. An industrial center at Florida Crystals doesn't fit in with the plans to build reservoirs and treatment areas to restore flows of water to the Everglades, according to the Everglades Coalition.

Backing the Florida Crystals site is similar to the county's ill-fated decision to try to build a home for The Scripps Research Institute in rural Loxahatchee, said Lisa Interlandi of the Everglades Law Center. Environmentalists' legal challenge to the Scripps project stalled construction and ultimately prompted the county to move the biotech headquarters to Jupiter.

"This is a mistake," Interlandi said about the Florida Crystals plan. "There are better opportunities."

Opening the door to new industry on land likely to trigger a legal fight means delaying potential job creation, said Commissioner Karen Marcus, who cast the only vote against the deal.

"We are picking a site we know is going to get litigated," Marcus said. "This isn't an inland port anymore. This is [another] industrial park."

Even without legal challenges, it would still take about a year for the project to move through the other county zoning approvals needed to allow Florida Crystals to start construction.

"The need for these jobs is now," Commissioner Jess Santamaria said.

Andy Reid can be reached at abreid@SunSentinel.com or 561-228-5504.

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