The Alachua County Comprehensive Plan is as close as we can get to a political consensus of our community. The product of many years of citizen advisory committee deliberations, workshops, public hearings, and legal challenges, and formally adopted and continually revised by an elected county commission, it provides a carefully considered blueprint for future growth in the unincorporated areas of our county. It balances the public interest with the rights of property owners by directing growth to appropriate areas and protecting public health, neighborhoods, farms, wetlands, and significant natural areas.
Now the Plum Creek corporation, the largest landowner in Alachua County and one of the largest Real Estate Investment Trusts in the country, is asking for their own plan, with different rules that would apply only to their 60,000 acres in eastern Alachua County. The differences are critical.
Plum Creek’s proposal features basic planning concepts: a mix of land uses, efficient use of resources, clustering of development, and land set-asides for conservation. They’ve earned kudos from around the state for embracing regional planning. Lost in Plum Creek’s public relations campaign is the fact that our Comprehensive Plan already requires all these things, but from the broader, more appropriate perspective of the entire county. Plum Creek provides a good answer to the wrong question: rather than debating how to develop their land into a new city, the community should remain focused on how best to accommodate growth countywide. Even the best-planned development is bad for the community if it’s in the wrong place.
Our Comprehensive Plan steers mixed-use growth to suitable areas adjacent to existing cities, and requires open-space set-asides. In contrast, Plum Creek wants to build a sprawling new city on their timberlands in some of the wettest and most remote parts of Alachua County, (See Wetlands map.) straddling a significant state wildlife corridor. (See Greenways map.) Like all urban sprawl, their proposal would drain investment and growth away from cities, drive up the cost of public services, and fragment natural landscapes and wildlife habitat.
Under our Comprehensive Plan, the rights from all of Plum Creek’s scattered lands would theoretically allow them to build about 7,400 homes. Whether all together or piecemeal, any such development would have to be clustered on half the land, with the most environmentally sensitive half permanently protected. They have no commercial rights. In contrast, Plum Creek now wants 10,500 homes, and a staggering 15.5 million square feet of commercial, industrial, and manufacturing space. To put that in perspective, the commercial space is equivalent to about 15 Oaks Malls. The total footprint of their development would be more than twenty square miles.
Our Comprehensive Plan protects all wetlands, including the small, seasonal, and dispersed wetlands we now know are critical for flood control, water quality and quantity, and numerous wildlife species. It also requires that half the uplands in designated “strategic ecosystem” areas be permanently protected. In contrast, Plum Creek’s proposal would destroy many wetlands, reduce the buffers around the wetlands that remain, and eliminate strategic ecosystem protections.
Even more troubling is that Plum Creek’s proposal at this stage is broad and general; the critical details would only emerge much later in the process, after the county commission has given the go-ahead. These details would be considered under a different approval process that would make it legally very difficult for the public or the county commission to deny anything or change course. And once the floodgates have opened, more permissive changes to the initial plan could be proposed at any time to a future county commission. From a planning perspective, the community is being asked to sign a blank check.
Their proposal would also set a dangerous precedent. Plum Creek’s lands are surrounded and interspersed by smaller parcels with other owners, all of whom would have every right to demand equal treatment. This piggy-back development would not be a part of Plum Creek’s “master plan.”
Stand By Our Plan does not oppose Plum Creek. We support our Comprehensive Plan. Plum Creek bought timberland, and has no right to any expectation of urban development. Growing trees will remain the most appropriate use of their land for the foreseeable future. Much of their land is appropriate for potential purchase under future public land conservation programs. Plum Creek sold a substantial parcel of their land to the county’s Alachua County Forever land conservation program, and the development rights to about a third of their land have already been sold to the state.
Stand By Our Plan is committed to informing the public about the critical differences between the Comprehensive Plan and Plum Creek’s proposal. Ultimately, we encourage a decision by the Alachua County Commission that’s in the best interest of all.