Location: Palm Beach County, Florida

Highlighted Element: 422.b. Deed Restrictions (DR)

Point of Contact: Brian Hanley, Emergency Management and CRS Coordinator, Palm Beach County, FL

Palm Beach County is located on the southeastern coast of Florida. This county is the third most populous in Florida and is home to more than 1,320,134 people (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010; "Palm Beach County, Florida," n.d.). Established in 1909, it was named after one the oldest communities in the county—Palm Beach ("Palm Beach County, Florida," n.d.).

Palm Beach County's natural areas protect and preserve hundreds of plant and animal species. Some, like the endangered four-petal pawpaw and Florida scrub jay, have found one of their few remaining homes in its natural areas. Others, such as the state tree (cabbage palm), and state bird (northern mockingbird) are common sights along the trails.

Image courtesy of Palm Beach County, FL.

Many natural areas, including freshwater and marine wetlands, are located within the county. Some of these have been specifically designated as conservation areas. Other lands with significant native vegetation have been designated and identified for acquisition in the "Inventory of Native Ecosystems in Palm Beach County" completed in 1988. The county's Environmentally Sensitive Lands Acquisition Program was developed in 1984 because the natural areas were rapidly being lost to development. The program set criteria for ranking and classifying lands with significant native vegetation, including upland and wetland ecosystems, for acquisition and protection as natural areas. On March 9, 1999 a $150 million bond referendum was approved to fund the acquisitions. At least $50 million of the proceeds were set aside for acquisition and preservation of county lands with significant native vegetation and greenways.

Jogger runs through natural area in Palm Beach County. Image courtesy of Palm Beach County, FL.

Thousands of acres of natural areas have been acquired and are being managed and maintained to protect native ecosystems, and provide passive recreation and environmental education opportunities. Management plans are developed for natural areas that have been acquired with bond funds, leased for management purposes or acquired through donation or other means. The plans specify management needs with regard to prescribed burns, eradication or removal of prohibited invasive non-native vegetation and public use. Long-term management and maintenance of the sites are important in order to ensure the natural resources and values of these lands are protected and maintained. Dedicated funding sources are necessary to support maintenance and management of natural areas.

In addition to the acquisition program, the county's regulatory processes are an important factor in the protection of natural areas and the maintenance of the county's natural resources. The destruction and degradation of native biological communities through various forms of land alteration, water table lowering and reduction of the quality of water entering these areas are the major threats to the county's native plant and animal populations. Once lost, the plant and animal species diversity, groundwater recharge capacity, and recreational and educational opportunities are irretrievable. The decline in health and natural diversity of Palm Beach County’s natural resources signals the need for continual protection and restoration efforts through the adjustment of water supply schedules, improved methods of controlling stormwater runoff quality, and the prevention of the spread of prohibited invasive non-native vegetation.

Description of the 1999 Conservation Bond Referendum Program: The county, through the Department of Environmental Resources Management (ERM), purchased several environmentally-sensitive parcels of land in various parts of the county for preservation and conservation. The March 1999 Conservation Bond Referendum provided $150 million towards a land acquisition program for open space purposes to protect environmentally sensitive lands (ESLs), land for water resources, greenways, agricultural lands and open space. The Board of County Commissioners directed that $100 million of the proceeds of this bond be dedicated to land acquisitions in the Ag Reserve and that $50 million be dedicated to land acquisitions throughout the county for ESLs. These natural areas have been acquired to preserve rare and diverse native ecosystems and existing biological diversity, including the endangered, threatened and rare species of plants and animals that live within these areas. The areas will be available to the public for passive recreation, environmental education and scientific research.

Learn more about how deed restrictions like conservation easements can be counted for CRS credit. Visit the Green Guide profile of element 422.b. Deed Restrictions.

Palm Beach County's success with element 422.b. is primarily due to a number of conservation easements recorded within an area called the "Agricultural Reserve." To gain CRS credit, West Palm Beach County did not create any new deed restrictions, but instead performed a study to identify all deed restrictions already in existence. It used a map to look at all areas with deed restrictions. Staff asked the parks department to see if any parks included deed restrictions, then made maps of those and sent them back to the parks department for review. Staff worked with multiple departments and programs to collect existing information to gain CRS credit.

Map of the Palm Beach County Agricultural Reserve. Map created by Palm Beach County's Planning, Zoning and Building Department.

Palm Beach County has policies in place and codes for reserves that can be found by referring to the Agricultural Reserve Master Plan (Palm Beach County Planning Division, 2000a). The creation of this plan was an evolution of policies and plans over the years. Please refer to the following reports on the development of the plan for more information on how Palm Beach County got started (CH2M HILL and Dover, Kohl, and Partners, 1998; CH2M HILL, 1998; CH2M HILL and Dover, Kohl, and Partners, 1999; Palm Beach County Planning Division, 2000a; Palm Beach County Planning Division, 2000b).

While not a direct cost, Deputy Director of the Department of Environmental Resource Management Dan Bates said their 31,000 acres of natural areas take $6-8 million per year to maintain. The bulk of which is the $5 million per year it costs to remove and eradicate invasive species. DERM has about 45 people on staff who manage the natural areas, which includes developing, maintaining and monitoring the sites. Most of the natural areas have some sort of deed restriction associated with them. They also have staff time directly related to the deed restrictions because they are involved with reviewing the legal aspects of the deed restrictions.

Palm Beach County staff say most of the costs are upfront, and then maintenance become less expensive as time goes on. Most of the new property comes from abandoned farmland. The beginning is very labor intensive as they do initial studies of the property and then rehabilitate it. Staff search for funding partners to perform the actual rehabilitation and then consider permitting and deed restrictions. The initial sweeps for exotic vegetation are very expensive. As the years go by the costs are reduced because maintenance is less expensive than the upfront costs. They also have a transfer of development rights (TDRs) program and the purchase of the TDRs go towards these maintenance costs. The TDRs do not cover the total maintenance costs, but it helps to offset them.

Scenic overlook in Pondhawk Natural Area. Image courtesy of Palm Beach County, FL.

They say there are many benefits associated with the deed restrictions. For one, they reduce flood losses by maintaining flood storage areas and maintaining permeable areas for percolation. They have passive recreation in most of their natural areas, which helps promote recreation and tourism. Open space has a positive effect on water quality because it filters most of the water that reaches coastal lagoons and open ocean. There are studies that monitor the rebounding of native species populations because of the preservation of open space, which can be found at Palm Beach County's Environmental Resource Management webpage. The county is also seen as an escape from the dense development of southern Florida, so deed restrictions help maintain the open space that draws people to their community.

One challenge county officials encountered is that certain land can't be counted as open space because there are no formal deed restrictions placed on them. For example, they have thousands of acres of open space that may have one building on it and it isn't counted as open space (note that having a building on a large parcel does not disqualify the parcel, it is the ability to build more). Or they have agricultural land that cannot be counted as open space because a barn could be built on the land.

The other main challenge occurs when property owners want to do more with their land and don't understand, or agree with, why they cannot do so (due to the deed restrictions). This is most often due to financial considerations and not due to a lack of understanding of the deed restriction itself.

To overcome this challenge, Palm Beach County cites education as one of its best practices. Property owners need to be aware of the financial and health consequences that can occur due to their actions. Community interaction is very important to the success of this element. Palm Beach County has had success with tailoring its education strategy to fit the motivation of each group. They find that heads turn when you mention the positive impact deed restrictions can have to nearby property values. A lot of success is also attributed to good partnerships with local communities, the state and federal government.

The best advice Palm Beach County wants to share is using layers of deed restrictions. Local government restrictions would be well served to have state or federal restrictions on top of them because local requirements can be easy to change.

Best practices that can be shared by this community:

  1. Palm Beach County recommends using multiple layers of conservation easements and deed restrictions. Many people don’t understand the importance of this.
  2. Tailor your education strategy to what motivates the group you are trying to reach. A little research can go a long way.

Through element 422.b. Deed Restrictions and other efforts the city can receive credit, Palm Beach County reached a Class 6 rating in the CRS. This resulted in a 20% reduction in the cost of flood insurance for most policyholders.