On the way to the Acreage, I exit the turnpike and turn onto Beeline Highway. There is not much around. Large forested lots with a few scattered gas stations -- the image one would expect when heading out to a farm. I felt as though I had stepped away from suburban south Florida.
Within a few miles, this starts to change. The overgrown look quickly turns into well-manicured shopping centers, gated communities, and golf courses. Not exactly the expectation I had in mind. I had assumed an area zoned "Agricultural Residential" would have a bucolic feel, not the country club esthetic of Boca Raton. Then again, the Acreage is situated right next to West Palm Beach and Palm Beach Gardens.
Over the past couple of decades, gentrification has been the trend for south Florida. Old ranch-style farmhouses have given way to 4,000-square-foot McMansions. The long-term residents, many of whom keep farm animals, are eventually zoned out. It happened to Davie. And it might happen here now.
The conflict came up for debate with county commissioners in June, after someone in Jupiter Farms made complaints about a noisy rooster. To solve the conflict, lawmakers introduced a proposal that included regulations that would restrict the placement of farm-related structures, limit the breeding and sale of livestock, and require new licensing for farm animals. After a public outcry, the bill was modified; some of the original language has changed, but there are still some changes that are worrisome for residents wishing to keep animals on their properties.
It was difficult to fully comprehend what all of that meant -- until I drove around and saw just how many people keep animals on their land, along with small structures to house them.
According to Acreage activist Patricia Curry, "our community existed before the 1989 Comprehensive Land Use Plan was adopted." The plan which was implemented to promote Palm Beach County agriculture, "calls for all lots in the Exurban Tier to be two and a half acres in size." By 1989, many of the properties had already been subdivided into lots one and a quarter acres, and in some cases, even smaller. Lots over two and a half acres are considered conforming. Nonconforming properties are comprised of all lots under that size.
One of the many concerns with the proposed ordinance places restrictions on the placement of permanent accessory structures. These structures have not been clearly defined, but it has been assumed that these would include: barns, coops, and shade shelters. They cannot stand within 25 feet from the property line on conforming lots, or 15 feet from the line on noncomforming lots. And they are not allowed in the front or side yards.
The nonconforming properties are a nice size, but they are not exactly huge, and those living with animals need every bit of that land. In order to take advantage of their yards, most people have their animals' shelters off to the far corners of their property lines. Would you want your pigs situated right next to your pool?
If this part of the ordinance were to pass, that could become reality, making for an awkward, and in some cases impossible, situation, and moving or reconstructing pens and barns is costly. For corner lots -- and there are a ton of them -- there would be no options at all. Property owners could not keep pens next to neighboring yards and they would be restricted from taking advantage of any property visible from the street. These residents would essentially be banned from holding any livestock due to the placement of their lot-- doesn't make much sense in an area zoned for residential agriculture. Livestock farms may not be pretty, but for many, they are a way of life.
As stated previously, the issue arose from a squabble between two neighbors in Jupiter Farms, over a rooster. The one complaining alleges that the rooster owner purposely placed the rooster near her property as an intentional annoyance. The proposed law was meant to appease both parties -- the rooster owner and the neighbor -- by keeping animals away from neighboring yards.
While that might solve some problems in Jupiter Farms, where conforming lots are five acres, it could hurt people in the Acreage, where conforming lots are half that size, and there are many of the even smaller, nonconforming lots. According to Curry, "zoning staff did indicate that they have quite a few lots in that one acre range in Jupiter Farms." The proposed ordinance will surely pose a burden on the small property owners. In the 15-mile area that makes up Jupiter Farms, there are fewer people who stand to be affected than in the 110-square-mile area that encompasses the Acreage.
Many residents fear that the regulations will impose upon the rural way of life. According to local goat farmer Jojo Milano, if passed, the law could have devastating consequences for the local farm movement. "These ordinances would not necessarily affect me personally, because I'm bonafide. I legitimately make much of my living off the land. However, that's not the case with everyone out here. A lot of my neighbors are hobby farmers, who enjoy a rural way of life. For many of us, we get everything from neighbor's farms: eggs, meat, chicken, pork, milk, honey, even frog legs. I pretty much only go to Publix to buy wine and cigarettes. Most everything else, I buy or barter local. I'm afraid that will not stay the same if this passes."
These restrictive ordinances might just buck the national farm-to-table trend. As more and more cities pass laws to expand local agriculture, the historically agriculture- friendly Palm Beach County might head in the opposite direction--pushing hobby farmers even further out.
Milano and Curry are hoping that local foodies and farmers will come out and show their support at a commission meeting this Thursday, July 26 at 9:30 a.m. at the downtown Governmental Center. The address is 301 North Olive Avenue, West Palm Beach. The meeting will be held on the 6th floor in the commission chambers.
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