Commissioner Mary Lou Berger free to vote on GL Homes issues

Palm Beach County Commissioner Mary Lou Berger can vote on GL Homes issues despite the builder’s hiring of her former boss, the county Commission on Ethics has determined.

After The Palm Beach Post reported that Burt Aaronson, a former commissioner recently hired by GL Homes as a lobbyist, had asked Berger, his former administrative aide, to support the builder’s request for rule changes in the county’s Agricultural Reserve, one of Berger’s constituents said she had a conflict of interest.

The constituent, Lance McAllister, wrote Berger suggesting she should recuse herself from GL Homes’ matters.

“Even should you elect to vote against such proposals, it might appear to others that your vote was influenced by other than the public interest, which could be used by political opponents against you,” McAllister wrote.

Berger herself, through Chief Assistant County Attorney Leonard Berger (no relation), formally requested an advisory ruling from the Commission on Ethics.

County ethics rules prohibit public officials from taking official actions that result in a financial benefit to themselves, their spouses, their companies, close relatives or employers.

Aaronson, who has not been Mary Lou Berger’s boss since 2012, fits none of those descriptions, so Berger is free to vote on GL-related topics, the Commission on Ethics said in an advisory ruling.

“Because the Code does not prohibit her from participating in and voting on a matter giving a special benefit to a former employer or supervisor, Commissioner Berger is not prohibited from participating in discussions and voting on matters when Mr. Aaronson appears before the Palm Beach County Board of County Commissioners,” the ruling states.

Commissioner Berger did not return calls for comment Friday.

The ethics ruling is the latest twist in a development-versus-preservation battle that has energized the Coalition of Boynton West Residential Associations, whose online form letter opposing the GL push for Agricultural Reserve rule changes has now been downloaded by more than 2,000 people, according to a spokeswoman for the group. The proposed change would allow more development to take place in the reserve.

Emails with personalized adjustments to that form letter have swamped commissioners’ in-boxes in recent weeks.

Last year, GL Homes got county approval to build 3,900 homes on 4,900 acres it owns in The Acreage/Loxahatchee area. But the developer later changed course and instead proposed building on land it owns farther south in the Agricultural Reserve, a 22,000-acre farming and land-conservation zone west of Boynton Beach and Delray Beach.

The county has limited development in the Ag Reserve by requiring 60 acres to be set aside for every 40 that are developed there. Land outside of the reserve can’t be preserved to facilitate development within the reserve.

That’s the rule GL wants to change, arguing that the road system in south county is better equipped to handle additional development than are roads in The Acreage/Loxahatchee area. GL wants the county to allow it to preserve some of its Acreage/Loxahatchee land in exchange for permission to build on land it owns in the Agricultural Reserve.

Homes built in the reserve would likely fetch far more than those built in the The Acreage/Loxahatchee area, but GL executives say their plan isn’t solely about making more money. The developer has built several high-end residential communities in the Agricultural Reserve, and GL executives say they want to continue to work in an area where they’ve already established a footprint.

GL’s plan, which isn’t expected to be formally presented to the county until later this year, has gotten support from Acreage/Loxahatchee area residents eager to curtail development in their midst. The Indian Trail Improvement District, which provides services to residents in The Acreage/Loxahatchee area, has passed a resolution of support of the idea.

But in south county, the GL plan has generated fierce opposition from those who argue that more development in the Ag Reserve will clog their roads, threaten agriculture and depress the value of homes bought by those who believed building in the area would be restrained.

The plan could be a divisive issue for the seven-member County Commission.

Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, whose district includes The Acreage/Loxahatchee area, said she likes GL’s plan to build less there. Two of her colleagues, Steven Abrams and Hal Valeche, have generally supported development proposals, arguing that they allow the county to shape and manage growth.

On the other side, county Mayor Paulette Burdick has been a staunch opponent of large-scale development proposals, saying they gobble up open space, threaten the environment and snarl traffic. Two new commissioners, Mack Bernard and Dave Kerner, have been wary of development proposals. Both attended a COBWRA meeting held last month when the group spelled out its opposition to GL’s plan.

That leaves Berger as the potential swing vote.

She has not taken a position on the issue, angering constituents who want her to join them in opposing more development in the Agricultural Reserve and leading some to suggest that she is a tool of Aaronson.

Berger has said her former boss’ position on the issue has had no bearing on her own position.