By Andy Reid
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
October 17, 2006
Under a new push for development at Lion Country Safari, homes could one day outnumber animals.
The drive-through animal park west of Royal Palm Beach wants approval to build twice as many homes as once planned on vacant land beside its attractions.
Palm Beach County commissioners opened the door to that possibility last month when they called for almost doubling the number of homes allowed on agricultural land between Wellington and Palm Beach Gardens.
Since then, Lion Country Safari representatives have been making the lobbying rounds, calling for the same two-homes-per-acre standard.
That could allow more than 1,000 homes on the property, instead of the 500 commissioners endorsed last year.
General Manager Harold Kramer said there are no plans to close the 39-year-old attraction, just to preserve the development rights of unused land. Home building remains at least two years away, he said.
"We just don't want to be forgotten," Kramer said. "There is a chance to develop and do it in a way that would be useful to everyone."
Commissioners last year made an exception to allow about 500 homes proposed on half of the 640-acre Lion Country Safari property.
Doubling that would be too much for residents in the rural area, Loxahatchee community activist Nancy Gribble said. It could lead to townhouses and apartments in an area where homes sit on 1.25 acres or more, she said.
"They shouldn't have been slipped in the back door from the get-go," Gribble said. "They should get no different favor."
Commissioners in 2005 added Lion Country Safari to the "sector plan," guidelines a decade in the making that were intended to shape neighborhoods planned on large western agricultural properties.
The plan called for a development standard of one home per 1.25 acres, but a majority of commissioners last month proposed changing that to two homes per acre.
Commissioners contend the change would increase the value of the county-owned Mecca Farms property and lead to the construction of more affordable housing out west. Western residents and environmental groups counter that it brings sprawling development that strains roads, schools and the environment.
Loosening development rules for some property owners sets a precedent similar to passing out just a few lollipops to a line of children, said Joanne Davis, spokeswoman for the growth watchdog group 1,000 Friends of Florida.
"They are all going to have a temper tantrum and you are going to find a way to give all the kids a lollipop," Davis said. "[Commissioners] are out of control."
The sector plan could be changed to allow more homes in concentrated areas on properties such as Lion Country Safari, while also including requirements for more open space and public facilities elsewhere, Commissioner Warren Newell said.
"Everybody wants the same thing," Newell said about the Lion Country Safari proposal. "We have to consider it."
Commission Chairman Tony Masilotti said he supported including Lion Country Safari in the original sector plan, but opposes further increasing the number of homes allowed.
"You can't fit two units per acre on that property and make it something that is desirable," said Masilotti, who along with Commissioner Karen Marcus cast the only two votes against increasing the homes allowed in the sector plan. "I don't think condos sell well in The Acreage," he said.
The push for more homes at Lion Country Safari and a recent decision to close an elephant exhibit don't signal a plan to shut down the attraction, Kramer said.
The park, with more than 900 animals, this year completed an expansion that includes a Ferris wheel, water playground, giraffe feeding exhibit and pavilion to host events. It continues to draw about 500,000 visitors a year and despite rising gas prices saw a slight increase in attendance this year, Kramer said.
New homes could be built on half the property, while the lions, campground and other attractions remain next door, he said.
"We are not going anywhere," Kramer said.
Andy Reid can be reached at email@example.com or 561-228-5504.