Palm Beach Post

Sep 1, 2014


Massive Sugar Hill development proposed across Palm Beach County line

By Susan Salisbury

Sugar cane fields, citrus groves and cattle ranch lands owned by two agricultural giants could one day be transformed into a settlement of 18,000 homes just west of the Palm Beach County line.

U.S. Sugar Corp. and pioneer ranch family Hilliard Brothers of Florida have joined to create a vision for 67 square miles in northeastern Hendry County to the southwest of Lake Okeechobee. The development would be made up of 18,000 residential units and 25 million square feet of industrial, retail, office and other commercial space.

U.S. Sugar Corp. and Hilliard Brothers are seeking state approval for a sector plan in northeast Hendry County.

Hilliard Brothers and U.S. Sugar are among large landowners around the state who have submitted long-range development plans to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. It’s the third such proposal and the biggest yet for Hendry County since 2011 when the state’s requirements were eased to expedite development of parcels of 15,000 acres or more.

Hendry County has roughly 37,000 residents, and its population is shrinking, according to Census records. The rural county has long depended on U.S. Sugar for jobs, and the company has reduced its workforce by almost half to 1,700 since 2000.

Last week, the Sugar Hill plan was cleared to be sent to the state and is expected back before the Hendry County Board of County Commissioners in December, said U.S. Sugar spokeswoman Judy Sanchez.

The Sierra Club asked the county commission to reject the plan, saying it would lead to the creation of a “new sprawling city of 18,000 residential units, while its historic cities become ghost towns.”

“The plan is a thinly veiled attempt by U.S. Sugar to artificially increase the price of its land before the next governor can pursue the remaining 153,000 acres needed for Everglades restoration under its existing contract,”¯ said Sierra Club member Rhonda Roff, who lives in Hendry County.

“As much as I would like to get the sugar company gone, I think I prefer it not be in the suburban sprawl mode they are proposing,”¯ Roff said.

Sarasota-based Sierra Club spokeswoman Cris Costello said the state has approved every sector plan submitted since 2011.

The Sugar Hill plan calls for development to occur over the next 46 years through 2060. Once the framework is in place, then more detailed plans will be formulated, said Mark Morton, U.S. Sugar’s director of strategic real estate and business development.

“We want to be responsive to the economic development efforts of the state and region that the local county is pushing for. We want to attract small manufacturers and distribution centers. We would like to think that in five years something would happen,”¯ Morton said.

The Hillard family beef cattle business dates to 1906. Joe Marlin Hilliard, 72, his two sons and daughter run the enterprise that owns 19,000 acres in Hendry and Glades counties, plus 9,000 acres of Georgia timber. He has eight grandchildren.

“We have owned land in Hendry County since 1932. Our family has been vegetables,”¯ Hilliard said. “It is not to do anything now, but to make sure down the road that our lands for our children are protected,”¯ Hilliard said. “This is common sense planning. We are going through all the hoops to prepare the land where it would be available to do a sector plan. The state likes that better.”¯

Both U.S. Sugar and Hilliard Brothers plan to remain in agriculture. The plan calls for 15,000 acres of the 43,313 to continue to be farmed or used for pasture.

Karson Turner is one of four Hendry County commissioners who voted for the Sugar Hill application to be sent to the state. Commissioner Janet Taylor was absent.

Turner said it’s crucial for Hendry County, where U.S Sugar is the major employer, to become more economically diversified. Hendry’s unemployment rate of 12.5 percent is the state’s highest.

“U.S. Sugar and Hilliard Brothers have a large footprint in our region and they want to see it developed in a smart way. We are excited about that opportunity to work with them and move that process forward,” Turner said. “If you look at the natural growth that Hendry County is going to undertake in years to come, that is the natural space it is going to occur in,” Turner said.

With coastal properties becoming more expensive, inland Florida counties where the land is cheaper and more plentiful are more attractive, Morton said.

“When things were really running up before the recession, cities like Clewiston, LaBelle and Lake Placid were starting to plan for a pretty bright future that was coming their way. The recession hit and everything just stopped. There is a lot of confidence now in the marketplace,” Morton said.

The plan’s goal is to enhance job creation and economic development.

With major highways and railways in place and the Airglades Airport just outside Sugar Hill’s boundaries, the location is ideal, Morton said.

Mary Ann Martin, owner of the 32-year-old Roland & Mary Ann Martin’s Marina in Clewiston, said the area’s growth has been stunted for years because it is surrounded by sugar cane fields. Sugar Hill is an opportunity for expansion, she said.

“We have no housing around here. We are land-locked,”¯ Martin said.

“We are the hub of the wheel in South Florida. You can be anywhere in Myers.”¯

The Conservancy of Southwest Florida, based in Naples, is taking a moderate stance on the proposal.

“We understand the importance of Everglades restoration and making sure it is not negatively impacted by the sector plan. We also understand they are within their legal rights to ask for this sector plan,”¯ said Julianne Thomas, a Conservancy growth management specialist.

The group wants to make sure conservation areas are preserved.

“If it’s going to happen,”¯ Thomas said, “we would like it to be as strong as possible.”

Sugar Hill

A master plan for 67 square miles in northeast Hendry County Partners and land owners: U.S. Sugar Corp., (34,000 acres) and Hilliard Brothers of Florida (9,800 acres)

Development horizon: 2060

18,000 residential units west of Clewiston

25 million square feet of commercial/industrial/office/retail

Future land use designations

Long term Agriculture: 14,818 acres

Employment Center: 10,522

Rural Estates: 8,286 acres

Mixed-Use Suburban: 7,085 acres

Mixed-Use Urban: 1,688 acres

Natural Resource Management: 914

Source: Sugar Hill Sector Plan

Other long-range Hendry County plans approved by the state

Rodina, 25,826 acres owned by agri-business Duda

Southwest Hendry Co., 23,600 acres owned by King Ranch and Consolidated Citrus

Source: Hendry County