BUSINESS

Florida developers criticized for urban sprawl but Avenir is restoring natural habitat too

Kimberly Miller
Palm Beach Post
A white tail deer gallops through in the Avenir Conservation Area that is being restored on April 28, 2022 in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.

PALM BEACH GARDENS — The wading birds exploded from the grassy wetlands like confetti from a popped balloon. Gawky wood storks and great blue herons with sparks of pink roseate spoonbills circled and swooped, then settled again in a prey-rich pond in the far western reaches of Palm Beach Gardens.

Within earshot, machines cleared land in the mid-April sun for fairways and golf cart paths and clubhouses and tennis courts and pools and shops and offices and 3,900 homes.

But the development isn’t threatening the wetlands, it’s restoring them.

Avenir, a sprawling community in its construction adolescence, is taking a snaggle-tooth cattle ranch back to a time before canals veined and drained its landscape, before bahiagrass was grown as food for cows, choking out native flora.

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When finished, the Avenir Conservation Area will include 2,400 acres of restored ecosystem with more than 10 miles of public walking trails. The restoration will also connect long-separated natural areas, creating a wildlife corridor and allowing a more natural flow of water in the Loxahatchee Slough that has not been seen in decades. 

Ed Weinberg, president of EW Consultants, discusses habitat restoration work done at the 2,400-acre Avenir Conservation Area in Palm Beach Gardens.

“The only native thing here were cabbage palms left by the cattle guys because they threw some shade,” said Ed Weinberg, president of the natural resource management firm EW Consultants, which was contracted to restore the property. “The development part funds the restoration. No one voluntarily goes and does this. It’s either tax dollars or the developer.”

Avenir "rose to the challenge" in wetlands restoration proposal

Weinberg said it’s unusual for a developer to set aside so much land for preservation, but it wasn’t just Avenir’s largesse that led to the restoration.

The Avenir site plan in Palm Beach Gardens reflects the creation of a  2,400-acre preserve with public trails north of the housing development. The land was a former cattle ranch that was overgrown with invasive species and sliced by drainage ditches. Courtesy Avenir

The property was the last undeveloped land in the city of Palm Beach Gardens, which made it valuable to environmentalists, city leaders and developers. Years of negotiations, which whittled down the number of homes from 7,600 in 2016 to the current 3,900, led to the final arrangement that earmarked about 50% of the property for the conservation area.

Palm Beach Gardens Media Relations Director Candace Temple said the city set the bar high for conservation and “Avenir rose to the challenge.”

Drew Martin, conservation chairman for the Sierra Club in Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties, fought Avenir, disliking its location 2 miles west of the Beeline Highway and Northlake Boulevard — a location that will drag more traffic along Grassy Waters Preserve, which is the main water supply for West Palm Beach, Palm Beach and South Palm Beach.

St. John's wort blooms in the Avenir Conservation Area that is being restored in Palm Beach Gardens.

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“We give them credit for doing what they said they would do, and we appreciate the fact they are doing what they promised,” Martin said. “We don’t give them extra credit because they are getting to do a development that we don’t think is good planning.”

Avenir is expected to increase the number of households in Palm Beach Gardens by 16%.

Avenir land tract has storied, colorful history in Palm Beach County

The Avenir land, which totals 4,752 acres and is about 10 miles southwest of The Gardens Mall, had a storied history under the ownership of Illinois native Charles Vavrus Sr.

Vavrus, who is the namesake of the Vavrus Ranch where Avenir is building, died in 2014. But his colorful clashes with government were often in the news, including during the Scripps Research Institute’s move to Florida in the early 2000s.

Vavrus stood to be paid $51 million for his land in an early plan with Scripps, but the deal fell through when environmentalists fought development on nearby Mecca Farms.

“We were concerned building on Mecca Farms would spur development on Vavrus,” said Everglades Law Center Executive Director Lisa Interlandi. “It’s an important parcel because it’s a connection between the Corbett Wildlife Management Area and the Loxahatchee Slough.”

Palm Beach County had long tried to buy the Vavrus property but Charles Vavrus “didn’t like government and didn’t care much for the county,” said Karen Marcus, a former Palm Beach County commissioner and president of Sustainable Palm Beach County.

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An aerial view of part of the natural area being restored at the Avenir development in Palm Beach Gardens.

“The good part of this story is Avenir did set aside 50% of the property for this preserve,” Marcus said. “At least we got some of it.”

Now three years into the restoration project, about 1,000 acres is complete and being managed to keep out invasive species. Currently being rebuilt from the scrub that once housed 2,000 head of cattle are pine flatwoods, freshwater marsh, strand swamp, mesic pine flatwoods, and wet and dry prairies. Rehabilitation has meant tearing out non-native plants and filling in canals that left the land unnaturally dry.

A cattail thrives in the Avenir Conservation Area that is being restored on April 28, 2022 in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.

More than 10,000 native plants have been added to the preserve, which Weinberg hopes to have finished within the next two years.

The restored wet prairie where the wading birds foraged this spring was once a stand of invasive melaleuca trees with clumps of papery white trunks that blocked birds from foraging.

One of the most important, but unseen, restoration efforts is to raise the water table over about 2,000 acres, Weinberg said. That’s done by installing a water control structure that will maintain a higher water table and allow for a steady release of water to the surrounding areas.

EW Consultants Environmental Specialist Patrick Weinberg at the Avenir Conservation Area that is being restored on April 28, 2022 in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.

“Before all of us got here and messed with everything, there was always water,” Weinberg said. “But when it’s agricultural land, they can’t let it get too wet or too dry.”

That's good for humans and cows, but not Everglades natives. 

Kimberly Miller is a veteran journalist for The Palm Beach Post, part of the USA Today Network of Florida. She covers real estate and how growth affects South Florida's environment. If you have any news tips, please send them to kmiller@pbpost.com.