Palm Beach County, sans Port, moves on Belle Glade Distribution Boondoggle
By Andy Reid, Sun Sentinel
5:31 p.m. EDT, July 21, 2010
The Port of Palm Beach may have shelved plans for an "inland port," but county officials and sugar giant Florida Crystals aren't giving up on developing a job-producing industrial distribution center in the midst of western farmland.
The County Commission on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to changing development guidelines and easing traffic standards to allow an industrial complex on 850 acres wedged between Belle Glade and South Bay, alongside Lake Okeechobee.
Local officials for years have been pushing to build a port cargo storage and distribution hub in job-starved western Palm Beach County.
They envision creating an "inland port" with room for warehouses and spin-off businesses linked to coastal ports by rail lines and truck routes.
Environmental concerns and disputes about where to put the project prompted the Port of Palm Beach in May to scrap a development deal for Florida Crystal's proposed location.
But county commissioners and the land owners maintain that the project can succeed even without an agreement with the Port of Palm Beach.
Supporters are counting on an influx of cargo to Florida thanks to improvements to the Panama Canal expected in 2014.
County officials hope that tapping into that potential increase in shipping can lure businesses to help with 40 percent unemployment in Belle Glade, South Bay and Pahokee.
"There are jobs for the people," Commissioner Jeff Koons said. "This is very valuable."
The Port of Palm Beach last year picked another Florida Crystals site about five miles south of the new location for the inland port.
Environmental groups objected to the previous location next to Florida Crystals' Okeelanta sugar mill and power plant. They argued that putting industrial development there threatened to get in the way of Everglades restoration efforts, and state regulators agreed.
Florida Crystals reached a settlement deal with the state and environmental groups and agreed to move its proposed industrial development to the 850 acres now proposed.
But when Florida Crystals changed the proposed location, the Port of Palm Beach decided it could not move forward without facing a legal fight from other communities also vying for the inland port project.
Environmental activist Rosa Durando on Wednesday questioned moving ahead with development approvals for an inland port plan that didn't include the Port of Palm Beach.
Durando warned that giving the development approvals for a project that may not come to pass "will have caused [a] skyrocketing cost of land" in the western agricultural area.
Attorney Richard Grosso, who represents 1000 Friends of Florida and other environmental groups that agreed to the settlement, said Florida Crystals' new location proposed for the inland port avoids the areas targeted for Everglades restoration.
The plan endorsed by county commissioners on Wednesday still must undergo a review by state growth management regulators before coming back to the County Commission for another vote.
"Finally we have arrived at the right conclusion" Commissioner Jess Santamaria said about the new location. "We know we want the inland port."