From Mike Byerly
First, thank you to the many, many people who made last night’s victory possible. A very important consequence of the hard work leading up to the vote is that the profile of our growth plan is at an all-time high, and a LOT of people who neither knew or cared anything about it before this began now understand its relevance to their lives.
It seems that the sheer scope of what Plum Creek is attempting has blurred the usual partisan dividing lines in our community in a healthy way. The paraphernalia of political philosophy just doesn’t seem relevant when you’re fighting for your home. Many folks in the eastern part of our county now understand that their beautiful surroundings can’t be taken for granted. We have to build on that, and make it part of a broader consensus on growth in our entire county.
Below is my explanation for why I voted the way that I did, probably in much more detail than you’d like, but it’s there if you’re interested. The slides I referenced in my comments are attached. My explanation for each slide wasn’t included in my written comments, so hopefully they speak for themselves.
Feeling pretty good today,
These hearings are the only chance the general public gets to critically examine Plum Creek’s proposal on a level playing field. They’ve spent millions of dollars over the past several years framing the way we think about their proposal, buying support from local charitable organizations, and intensively lobbying community institutions. They’ve had the stage almost entirely to themselves.
What little journalism we’ve seen hasn’t been investigative, but of the “he said, she said” style, and even that has been overwhelmed by Plum Creek’s advertising in the same outlets. And despite some criticism from Plum Creek supporters, the county staff report is not the counterargument to Plum Creek’s proposal, not by a long shot. They were not asked to evaluate pros and cons. Their job was, much more narrowly, to compare Plum Creek’s plan with the county’s adopted plan. They’ve done that well, and resisted the political pressure to “play up both sides equally.”
So… “the rest of the story” is only now coming out, just before local government is called upon to make a decision, and I don’t intend to rush this. I’m going to take a close look now, one by one, at the arguments Plum Creek has been making for the past few years.
1. THE PLAN
Every community struggles with the changes that accompany growth. Natural areas and rural landscapes are squeezed into ever smaller and more scattered areas, the environment suffers, landmarks disappear, taxes go up, and traffic gets worse. Either consciously or by default, the community decides how much of its natural legacy to cash in to meet the needs of today, and how much to leave for the next generation.
In Alachua County, we’re trying to do it consciously. The Comprehensive Plan (CP,) is our best effort at weaving together the competing demands of growth, quality of life, and environment into a reasonably stable political compromise. Whatever its perceived weaknesses, it’s the only chance we’re going to get to avoid the ruinous path taken by so many other Florida communities.
It took nearly a decade to wrestle our current CP and its regulations into place. County staff tallied some 207 PUBLIC meetings on the CP during that period, including 60 workshops and 46 public hearings of the Board of County Commissioners and Planning Commission; 58 meetings of more than 15 different citizen advisory committees; 27 Town Meetings, Community Workshops and Public Forums; and (at least) 16 meetings with various stakeholder groups, ranging from the Builders Association of North Central Florida to the Sierra Club.
Innumerable issue-by-issue compromises were reached during this process, many before recommendations ever went to the County Commission. Later on, legal challenges and a mid-course electoral about-face that brought Lee Pinkoson and Cynthia Chestnut to the Commission led to more substantial compromises. In the end, a plan emerged that a politically diverse County Commission could unanimously vote into law, even if those on opposite ends of the political spectrum had to hold their noses to do it.
The CP is certainly not what I’d like it to be, but even a moderate growth plan is preferable to the market-driven free-for-all that is the only alternative. And that is the choice we’re making right now.
For what it’s worth, our CP has received a number of state and national recognitions, and has remained essentially unchanged for nearly a decade, except for the inclusion of our Multimodal Transportation policies. The county is growing vigorously now under its direction, but in a more fiscally prudent and environmentally responsible direction than before, and the long-term benefits of good planning accumulate each year we continue on this course. It’s the best thing we have going for us as we grow into an uncertain future.
But there’s a problem…. for Plum Creek. Their place in our plan doesn’t maximize value for their shareholders. So, they’ve offered up one that does: the tightly controlled marketing initiative they call “Envision Alachua.” They’re asking us to abandon our plan, and, I believe, planning in general, in favor of their business proposal.
Some citizens have emphasized that the CP is supposed to be flexible, and that we often make changes, but I think they’re missing the point. The CP is organized into a handful of fundamental “Goals” around which we have the strongest community consensus, under which are enabling “Objectives,” and then finally many specific “Policies,” which implement the more fundamental Goals. These low-level Policies are often revisited and revised, but always in order to more effectively implement the consensus Goals.
Plum Creek has provoked such an intense reaction because they want to remove two of the most fundamental pillars of the CP: the growth boundary, and a cluster of beneficial environmental protections. Without these policies, what remains doesn’t really deserve to be called a plan. These exemptions would apply only to them, for now, but all landowners will eventually, and very reasonably, demand equal treatment.
A plan is worthless unless it’s followed, and the political consensus bought with so much time and effort shouldn’t be abandoned lightly. It seems only reasonable that the burden should be on Plum Creek to demonstrate, with more than promises, how their proposal is better than what we have, and for everyone, not just for them.
Plum Creek has claimed the word “compromise” as their own, accusing those who disagree with them of being inflexible. In truth, the compromise was already reached, through a very exhaustive and very public process in which they participated. They now want to compromise on the compromise. To simplify our situation: if a slaughterhouse was proposed to be built adjacent to your neighborhood, would you want your county commission to “compromise” on the size of the facility? Or, would you want them to insist that it be built in the more suitable area already designated for slaughterhouses?
Turning now to some of Plum Creek’s more specific claims…. I’m starting with the magic word that Plum Creek has used as wrapping paper for their proposal: JOBS. If not for their enticing promise of high-paying jobs for low-skilled local workers, particularly in east Gainesville, they would probably have been dismissed without serious consideration.
Plum Creek grows trees and sells land, but they’re marketing hope. It seems so clear to so many that east Gainesville is a pawn in their game. But it’s not that people who support Plum Creek’s plans are naive; rather, it’s that a drowning man will grasp at anything, because he has nothing to lose. Why not give Plum Creek a try? If it doesn’t pan out, then we’re just right back where we started. The problem with east Gainesville’s “nothing to lose” option is that it means even more people in our community must lose a great deal. Whatever Plum Creek eventually does, they won’t be doing it anywhere near east Gainesville, but in rural eastern Alachua County, where the people are overwhelmingly opposed. The County Commission is obligated to take a very hard look at the promises that seemingly force us to choose the interests of one group of our citizens over another.
The essence of advertising is to identify what the customer really wants, then equate that with the product. It doesn’t matter whether the product is shampoo, or a car, or a real estate proposal. The first phase of Plum Creek’s work in our community was to identify what we want. The hand-picked Task Force that Plum Creek would like us to view as a proxy for public opinion was first their focus group. That focus group generated the same wish list as every community in the world would: prosperity for all, but without surrendering quality of life or the natural environment that enables future prosperity.
But it’s far easier to identify a problem than it is to solve it. Plum Creek has accused their detractors of indifference to economic injustice. In truth, we see no evidence, or even logical explanation, for the idea that Plum Creek can do anything about it. All our hard-won experience suggests that the sprawling future they propose is more likely to make things worse. Sprawl doesn’t reduce economic segregation; it causes it. The people speaking up for east Gainesville are calling attention to the right problems, but Plum Creek is NOT the answer just because, for their own reasons, they’ve just now joined in the questioning.
It’s true that the phrases “east Gainesville” and “east County” both contain the word “east.” But geographic reality trumps word games. East Gainesville is closer to I-75 than it is to even the closest edge of Plum Creek’s land, and Plum Creek’s so-called “jobs center” is further away from east Gainesville than the Town of Tioga. Virtually all of the land the CP designates for growth, and where most of the growth is now happening, is much closer to east Gainesville than Plum Creek’s land, and it isn’t separated by miles of lake, swamp, and conservation land. If all the growth along the I-75 corridor and everything in between hasn’t helped East Gainesville, how could Plum Creek’s new city, 15 miles away?
But there’s a larger point. The term “east Gainesville” serves as code for economic injustice, but the worst concentrations of poverty in our community aren’t there, but west of I-75, surrounded by new growth. Growth in itself clearly does not reduce poverty, or unemployment, or economic disparity, even when it’s literally next door. Real improvement requires upward wage pressure, without incoming residents wiping out the net gains, and it has little to do with growth. The wrong kind of growth doesn’t make us better, it just makes us bigger, along with all our problems.
Plum Creek has been repeatedly challenged to specify when the jobs will come, how much they’ll pay, and how we can assure they’ll go to the people in our community that Plum Creek is seemingly concerned about. It’s not that they don’t want to answer; they CAN’T, because they don’t know. The market would determine all that, over decades, and acting through many individual future buyers of Plum Creek’s land, each with their own plans. And, every aspect of the growth they promise is subject to change at any time with a simple vote of the county commission.
Plum Creek speculates in land. That’s not an insult; it’s just an accurate description, and it’s the key to understanding their intentions. Speculators do not make growth happen. They guess where it’s going to happen, and then they line up their bets, usually in competition with other speculators. So, why are they betting on eastern Alachua County? They haven’t hidden the answer; they’ve just de-emphasized it in their communications with Alachua County.
This part may seem a little “out there” to people hearing it for the first time, but for years, business and government leaders have been preparing for the economic fallout from the widening of the Panama Canal, scheduled for completion this year. Today’s massive new commercial supertankers carrying goods to and from Asia can’t fit through the current canal, and so shipping offloads on America’s west coast, even if the goods are destined for Gainesville. The newly widened canal will shift vast amounts of shipping traffic from west coast to east, and port cities up and down the Atlantic seaboard are getting ready. In our area, Jacksonville’s newly expanded port will swell with new distribution, and related business interests are jockeying for position along the transportation routes radiating out from the city. In our county, that means US 301 and the parallel CSX rail line, primarily at their intersection with SR 20. Hawthorne is at ground zero, though it’s still many miles and many years away from the action. The important point is that Plum Creek isn’t going to make this growth happen, as they’ve encouraged us to think; rather, they see what the future holds, and they’re looking for a leg up on the competition. The job growth won’t come just because Plum Creek rezones their land.
Plum Creek describes their proposal as a 50-year plan, suggesting that this makes it better than our more modest and realistic 20-year CP. The 50-year time frame has no real meaning; it just emphasizes that they’re making a speculative bet on growth that is still decades away. They don’t propose to even break ground on their so-called “US 301 jobs center” until after 2030.
In short: Alachua County doesn’t need Plum Creek; they need us. We aren’t obligated to give them a competitive advantage over other landowners just because the land they bought is in the wrong place. We should be focused on the same thing they are: the growth that is coming. To the extent that the county’s interests and Plum Creek’s interests overlap, our Comprehensive Plan should reflect that. But our interests are not the same.
It may make sense to amend the CP to accomodate future industrial growth near Hawthorne, if we believe that Hawthorne can’t meet the potential demand, but this should be based on location, not on who owns the land.
It makes no sense to amend it anywhere else. It’s important to distinguish between the two new cities that Plum Creek has proposed. The one on US 301 is the one that holds some eventual promise of transportation and light manufacturing jobs. The one on SR 20 south of Windsor is very different. Plum Creek has packaged this area as the home for a future Agricultural research park. If this vision eventually comes to pass, based upon the vague descriptions we’ve been given, much of it would simply be a relocation and consolidation of functions now in more central parts of the county. But more importantly, are we really desperate for more high-skilled research jobs for newcomers?
It should be clear that none of this has anything to do with east Gainesville. At best, it might see more gas stations and fast food stores along SR 20 coming into town, to service the increase in passing traffic. The best hope for East Gainesville, by far, is not Plum Creek’s speculative ambitions fifteen miles away, but the continuing renaissance of downtown Gainesville, happening right now, just fifteen blocks away. We should do everything we can to protect and encourage that growth, and that means avoiding the worst enemy of cities: sprawl.
Which brings us back to the CP. If Plum Creek isn’t really going to provide good jobs to the people in our community who need them most, then all they really offer is more of the same growth, but in a different place than we’re now planning for it to go.
Are they providing for an unmet need? County staff have estimated that there is enough undeveloped land already approved for development in the county’s Urban Cluster to accommodate nearly three times the number of jobs needed in Alachua County through the year 2045, and nearly four times the number of homes. Plum Creek clearly isn’t about providing for an unmet need; it’s about competition.
Is their proposal a better way for us to manage growth? Plum Creek has given us an excellent answer to the wrong question. They ask “how should we develop our land into a city?” The CP asks the more important first question: “where should we build cities?” This broader perspective recognizes that even the best-planned development is still a disaster if it’s in the wrong place.
Sector Planning in general is a good idea, but that doesn’t mean that every proposal put forward in the name of sector planning is sound, or that it should supercede a good plan that is already in place. Alachua County has already done its Sector Plan, for a larger and more comprehensive area than just Plum Creek’s land.
The CP is fundamentally about the future. It promotes orderly growth on existing public infrastructure, while discouraging it in places that are physically unsuitable. It brings living and working places closer together; provides transportation options; clusters rural development; protects Open Space in new development; and preserves wetlands and critical ecosystems. Smart growth means building nice and affordable places for us to live today without denying the next generation a chance at the same thing.
By definition, the opposite of smart growth is sprawl. Envision Alachua is the very definition of sprawl. Plum Creek knows this; it’s why they’ve spent so much money and tortured philosophizing insisting that it isn’t. Growth patterns are real, as are their consequences, and even Florida’s rabidly growth-oriented statutes define Plum Creek’s proposal as sprawl.
Sprawl happens because rural land is cheaper for developers to build on, but taxpayers eventually have to provide the more costly public infrastructure and services needed by remote and disconnected areas. It’s terrible for the environment, but it also drains investment and energy from cities, and stokes cyclic poverty and economic segregation. Every city in America has an urban area where poor people are clustered, left behind as growth sprawled into distant outlying areas, taking with it jobs, the newest schools, the best roads, and the best shopping and housing opportunities. We’re no exception. But in Alachua County, the sprawl, so far, has only been in one direction, rather than all directions. Is this due to economic racism, or negligence, or a failure to plan appropriately?
Lack of market demand, driven by the soggy nature of the land, has historically limited growth in eastern Alachua County. The CP didn’t create this reality, but it does take into account the terrible environmental consequences that would result from intensive development there in allocating appropriate land uses. The same reasons that communities historically took shape in east Gainesville, Hawthorne, Micanopy, Waldo, and Melrose are the same factors that make them the right places for future growth. When the economic trends outlined above eventually bring growth to the east, Plum Creek’s lands are, for the most part, not the place for it. Our CP reflects that.
The CP also recognizes the large, undevelopable gulf that separates east Gainesville from Plum Creek. Leave aside for a moment the devastating consequences of Plum Creek’s plan for the people who now live in eastern Alachua County. Is it possible that Plum Creek’s sprawl, even though many miles away, would trickle down benefits to east Gainesville? Or would what is now a peninsula of poverty transition into an island, as it has everywhere else? What kind of growth would result from the new traffic passing through on the way to west Gainesville? Are there positive aspects of life in east Gainesville, perhaps now taken for granted, that could be lost? Could things actually get worse? I don’t pretend to know the answers to these questions, but the answers given by other communities that have gone down this path before us aren’t encouraging.
Recognizing that the best defense is a strong offense, Plum Creek maintains that even though their proposal appears to be an environmental disaster, if one looks closely enough, it actually nets out beneficially for the environment. They use three arguments: one carrot and two sticks.
First, the carrot. In exchange for permission to build a new city right in the middle of the largest and most environmentally significant undeveloped region of private land remaining in our county, Plum Creek promises to cluster their development footprint on less than fifteen percent of their land, and permanently protect the remainder. Sounds like a winner for the environment.
Plum Creek is leveraging a history of win-win deals between environmental groups and large landowners with dangerous development rights, in which those rights are clustered away from the most environmentally significant parts of their land, usually in exchange for money or more development rights. This template is what attracted initial support from some environmentalists. On closer inspection, however, there are a number of reasons why it doesn’t work here.
First, they don’t have any dangerous development rights yet; they’re asking us to give them to them. But let’s assume that, as Plum Creek has continually threatened, that eventually they’ll get a compliant county commission if this one doesn’t give them what they want. So, why would they willingly surrender so much potential profit by voluntarily extinguishing those development rights? Why not sit tight for a few years until that friendly commission arrives, since they don’t intend to develop any of these lands for decades to come anyway? Why aren’t their shareholders in revolt against this proposal? Are they actually a philanthropic organization?
The short answer is that they’re only surrendering the development rights on land they can’t profitably develop anyway; not because of the Comprehensive Plan, but because of geographic and economic reality. They’re asking to be rewarded for refraining from doing something they have no intention of doing in the first place.
Here’s how it plays out. First, Plum Creek has routinely neglected to mention that forty-three percent of their land is already permanently protected from development by conservation easements. The development rights were voluntarily sold by the previous owner at market value many years ago. For some reason, this hasn’t stopped them from posting this land with yard signs promising to protect it if the county approves their application.
Next, over 1500 of the acres they’re offering to protect are actually Florida sovereign submerged lands beneath Orange Lake, and therefore technically owned by the people of Florida.
The remainder of the land they’re offering to protect is concentrated in three areas, referred to as the Northeast Flatwoods, the East Lochloosa Slough, and Lochloosa Creek. [Point out and contrast NEF and ELS with Windsor tract.]
It would be expensive to dewater this area, but if the development rights are intensive enough, it would still be profitable. But now let’s take a closer look at the largest of the three proposed conservation areas, the NEF…
[Slide 4: Northeast Flatwoods with wetlands superimposed] : 11% uplands, 89% wetlands or 100-year floodplain
Here’s the next largest area, known as East Lochloosa Forest:
[Slide 5: East Lochloosa Forest with wetlands superimposed] 34% uplands, 66% wetlands or 100-year floodplain
And the third area is the Lochloosa Creek corridor:
[Back to Slide 3:] 28% uplands, 72% wetlands or 100-year floodplain, 4 road crossings and stormwater retention permitted
But for a potential developer, it’s even worse than that. Even these small percentages of theoretically developable upland are broken up into many widely scattered small pieces that would have to be individually supplied with roads and utilities. In other words, while it’s possible that a few pockets of these lands adjacent to existing roads could be developed into small residential areas one day, if the market for it ever returns, the vast majority of the land they’re offering to protect is so wet, fragmented, and isolated from infrastructure that it would be prohibitively expensive to develop. There is no other explanation for their generosity.
Furthermore, when big conservation land deals are typically struck, the developer clusters his impacts on the least sensitive land, and preserves the most significant. Plum Creek turns this logic on its head. They want to build their city on the most environmentally significant land they own, astride a vital regional wildlife corridor, and “conserving” less important areas.
And lastly, Plum Creek uses the word “conservation” in a very different way than the general public. For them, “conservation” means their harsh form of monoculture fiber farming, biologically more akin to a corn field than a forest. On top of that, they propose to use this land for the “mitigation” they’ll need to replace all the wetlands they’re planning to destroy, which obviously would be cheaper than acquiring new land for that purpose. It’s debatable how much actual environmental value this land would possesses.
The upshot of all this is that the public gains no environmental benefit in exchange for the vast new development rights that Plum Creek is requesting.
The first argument that Plum Creek uses as stick is that if the county refuses their proposal, their existing rights under the CP would allow them to uniformly blanket the eastern part of the county with thousands of 5-acre residences, which would be even worse for the environment.
This is a transparent bluff, for the same reasons that Plum Creek is willing to just give away the development rights on so much of this land. But on top of the physical, economic, and market constraints, we now have to add the additional layers of protection in the CP. The CP is clear that the theoretical development rights of one house per five acres can only be realized as long as all other provisions of the CP are met.
[Staff explanation of CP hurdles to development of this type of land]
Plum Creek’s existing development rights on the overwhelming majority of their land pose little threat to the environment, with or without the CP.
The second stick that Plum Creek has used to whip environmentalists into line is the “lesser of two evils” argument, which goes something like this:
“We can’t rely on the existing Comprehensive Plan forever; eventually Plum Creek will get a commission that will give them what they want, or the state will bail them out by over-ruling us somehow, so it’s better to cut a deal with them now in exchange for better protections for the environment than we might get in the future.”
This argument only works if Plum Creek is actually putting something valuable on the table now in exchange for their development rights, and as we’ve just seen, they aren’t. The land they’re offering to keep in industrial silviculture is undevelopable to begin with; they won’t change their harsh forestry practices; and the style of development they propose is no more than what the market now demands. How could this get worse? What they’re proposing is essentially what they’d do anyway, even if there were no environmental regulations, because it makes the most economic sense. We risk very little by standing by our CP; we stand to gain a great deal.
To close out the environmental problems, we have to remind ourselves that the fallout won’t be limited to Plum Creek’s land. Their land is interspersed with and surrounded by other privately owned lands, which will inevitably piggyback on the growth once it starts, either from landowners eager to cash in, or others fleeing the growth. Once the floodgates are opened, more permissive changes to both Plum Creek’s plan and all the surrounding lands will follow, as the region between Newnan’s Lake, Hawthorne, and Melrose transitions from rural to suburban.
I won’t waste time rebutting Plum Creek’s promise that the residents of their new cities won’t irrigate their lawns, or that building a new city in the middle of a huge expanse of wet flatwoods won’t harm the water because they’re obligated to follow state law. You either believe that Florida is doing a good job protecting water, or you don’t.
Finally, a lot of anger and suspicion has been directed at Plum Creek as a corporate entity. Since Plum Creek has encouraged us to think of them as partners, it’s only prudent to consider who we’d be going into business with. Their record so far, during the approval period when we could expect them to be on their best behavior, isn’t encouraging.
What effects have they already had on our local public customs? A lot could be said, and has been, about the shameful way Plum Creek manipulated our Planning Commission process. Our institutions of higher learning, UF and SFC, have embarassed themselves on behalf of Plum Creek, offering unsubstantiated last minute endorsements without explanation or chance of public dialog, and without consulting any of the folks they represent. These unprecendented interventions in the local government land use planning process reflect not a professional judgment on the validity of Plum Creek’s proposal, but on the persistence of their lobbying.
Understandably, there is deep uncertainty regarding Plum Creek’s true plans. The internet is full of troubling accounts from other communities left in the wake of Plum Creek’s business dealings, and we’ve heard ample testimony about that during these hearings.
But really, we don’t need to rely on their track record. Plum Creek CEO Rick Holley bluntly outlined their plans to investors in an interview last year. It warrants a careful look.
Plum Creek CEO quote ( inserted the words in bracket):
“One of the key incentives for the company over the past several years has been the entitlement [upzoning] of our most valuable development properties. Through the pursuit of these entitlements, we change the very nature of these assets and create long term value for shareholders. We do not intend to pursue vertical development [construction], or invest a significant amount of capital [infrastructure] into these properties. Rather, our strategy is to spend time and effort to move these properties up the value chain through entitlement and capture that value [sell.]”
So of course they’ve been vague regarding how infrastructure and services will be provided to their future developments, as the county staff report repeatedly points out. Their intentions are clear. The donations to local charities won’t continue forever. The friendly local folks hired to shepherd this proposal through the process won’t be making the decisions. The Weyerhaeuser Corporation’s merger with Plum Creek, even as we have debated this local decision, underscores this reality.
6. THE WAY FORWARD
Plum Creek is not a magical gumball machine, ready to deliver the solutions to all our problems if only we twist the knob in just the right way.
While many grim possible futures can be imagined, the greatest threat we face is not Plum Creek, but the self-fulfilling defeatism that believes they are unstoppable, and that the best we can hope for is to appease them in a manner that ekes out a few sops for what remains of the environment. The best any community can do is develop a good plan, stick with it, and try to leave as many options open for our children as we can, so that they can navigate safely through what will undoubtedly be more challenging times than ours. That’s the way forward. It doesn’t offer a false sense of certainty. It’s boring, but it’s also good government.
The end game for the Plum Creek problem is to buy their most environmentally significant lands, while allowing development in due course on their lands that are suitable for it, such as along the US 301/CSX rail corridor. One of the many benefits of growth management is that by promoting the efficient use of land, it keeps the most important natural areas relatively intact until they can be acquired for public conservation. In other words, it buys us time in the relentless path to total buildout. Why would we precede future land negotiations by dramatically increasing the market value of the very lands we want to acquire with one short-sighted vote?
In the meantime, PC is moving ahead with development of the land they’ve annexed into Hawthorne. Why are we rushing to give away fifty years of development rights, when we don’t know what next year holds? Let’s see what they do in Hawthorne, and revisit the issue in another decade. I will vote “no” to the applicant’s proposal.