PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. - Four decades after emerging from Palm Beach County's western wilderness, Lion Country Safari wants to get its share of the growing urban jungle.
Theme park officials on Monday persuaded the County Commission to change the drive-through animal theme park's "rural" land designation and quadruple the number of homes allowed on the 637 acres in Loxahatchee.
Lion Country Safari representatives contend they plan to build on the unused portions of the property, not close the tourist attraction. They have pushed for years to expand their development potential as a way to diversify operations and keep the theme park running.
But Loxahatchee residents and environmental groups warn that lifting the rural designation for Lion Country Safari threatens to allow sprawling suburban development to spread farther west.
The state Department of Community Affairs has also objected to changing the county's rural development guidelines.
"There is no need for this," Loxahatchee resident Patricia Curry said. "We don't need the additional homes. We don't need the additional traffic."
The changes would allow Lion Country Safari to build as many as 254 homes, instead of the 63 homes previously allowed.
It changes the development guidelines for the property from allowing just one home per 10 acres to one home per every 2.5 acres. The deal as currently planned would require those homes to be kept off the parts of the property that now house the theme park.
Lion Country Safari's development consultant, Kieran Kilday, reminded the commission Monday that the theme park began before neighborhoods started springing up in Loxahatchee.
"We think we can fit in and continue to be a good neighbor," Kilday said.
Commissioner Jess Santamaria, whose district includes Lion Country Safari, supported the changes.
"I'm totally convinced that the neighbors … will not have any significant impacts," Santamaria said.
Commissioners agreed to allow more development at Lion Country Safari despite concerns from state regulators that it could add to urban sprawl — overwhelming schools and roads in what has long been considered a rural area.
"This sets a really bad precedent for us," said Commissioner Karen Marcus, who cast the only vote against allowing more development. "We just really need to look at what this message is we are sending."
Changing the rural designation to accommodate Lion Country Safari seems like "a bailout for one property owner," said Joanne Davis, of the growth-watchdog group, 1000 Friends of Florida.
Residents, the environmental groups or the state Department of Community Affairs could still file a legal challenge to the county changing its development guidelines for Lion Country Safari.
Just because Lion Country Safari came first doesn't mean its development desires should outweigh residents' concerns, Loxahatchee resident Nancy Gribble said.
"It's not about who was here first," Gribble said. "It's about planning a vision for the community."
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