Commissioner Robert Hutchinson

    • Perspective on Envision Alachua’s Plan

      2016-01-27 10:15:00


      The Envision Alachua process has brought into focus a deep divide in our community's perceptions of well-being.  It asks for a partnership between developers and government to solve profound problems, but requests that a substantial leap of faith be made in an era of healthy skepticism. The adversarial relationship that has arisen in the regulatory portion of this planning effort is at odds with what should be a collaborative process of community building.

      The Envision Alachua Plan promises what many want: increasing opportunity for well-paying jobs, re-balancing our geographic growth, and minimizing environmental impacts.  But by leaving so many important questions unanswered, it has created distrust between parties who care about our community’s future.  We have become so polarized that we don’t even hear the same things when the plan is discussed.  The process has created expectations that may be undeliverable due to costs that are infeasible and impacts that are unsustainable. 

      Envision Alachua has identified the problem, but so far we as a community have failed to imagine the solution. Plum Creek's process made an attempt, just as Alachua County made an attempt when drafting our comprehensive plan, to envision a future. But both processes were controlled by insiders and delivered outcomes that are unsatisfactory.

      For whatever the real or perceived benefits of the current Envision Alachua proposal, either approval or denial by the Alachua County Commission will have dire consequences for our community and its politics.  Fracturing those who care most about the community over this single issue will have repercussions far into the future.  We can do better than that, and my hope is to suggest another way forward.

      The Problems 

      Our community seeks to solve three problems: 

      1)  How to increase economic prosperity by creating or attracting higher quality jobs, and how to distribute the geography of economic development more equitably; and,

      2)  How to protect the environment, which includes regional water issues, landscape linkages, and healthier working landscapes; and,

      3)  How to accommodate future population growth that does not subsidize patterns of development which are inefficient, costly, and ugly; we justifiably fear becoming like south Florida.

      The Current Proposal

      Plum Creek proposes to use its lands to work on these problems, but the company has limited its planning efforts to only those properties which it currently owns. That is the first flaw in our process, as many of Plum Creek's lands are either located poorly for delivery of services, or are so wet as to make future development costly and damaging.  It would have been better from the outset to delineate a larger area in the eastern County and to plan for the entire area -- not limiting ourselves to just the lands of this one landowner -- to determine how and where to proceed.

      Envision Alachua proposes that their focus will first be on job creation in the advanced manufacturing sector and agricultural technology transfer. Once that occurs, market-rate residential development will follow, and when there is sufficient nearby population, commercial development will then be viable. This understanding of the community's needs and how to sequence the development is a strength of their proposal.  But a weakness is that the infrastructure necessary for putting multiple large buildings in an area isolated from basic services like wastewater treatment, will be very costly up front.  It is essential for Plum Creek to show their math when it comes to how much such isolated and expensive infrastructure will cost and how and by whom it will be financed.

      Envision Alachua has created hope for people by promising an opportunity for better work. The  Chamber of Commerce and other economic development agencies have brought and retained jobs in Alachua County, however they have not succeeded in either creating or attracting all the jobs that Plum Creek is now promising. But the only significant asset that Plum Creek has is timberland and natural areas, and they make their money by selling land or the trees that grow on it.  It is critical that the actual organizations who will be doing the development be identified early in this process to overcome the skepticism that this effort is primarily one of creating speculative real estate value through marketing to our community leaders.

      Environmental concerns

      Southeastern Alachua County is largely within the springshed of Silver Springs, which is already over-pumped by 30 million gallons per day. Therefore, under any reasonable water allocation scenario, there should be no additional groundwater withdrawn, which significantly limits the development that can be placed here. No doubt there is an assumption that Plum Creek can convince the agencies who regulate water supply and water quality to continue to ignore the finiteness of our resource and the inability to dilute more pollution. This issue must be addressed now, rather than assume agencies in the future will continue to ignore the reality of our ongoing water problems.

      Our understanding of water resources increases every year and now includes concerns about impact of industrial forestry on our water.  Even with "best management practices" the dense planting of thirsty trees on land that has been plowed, herbicided, and fertilized is having an effect on our water resources that is not sustainable.  To their credit, Plum Creek and others are engaged in research to better understand water relations in forestry, and Plum Creek has proposed important changes to their local forestry practices if the Envision Alachua Plan moves forward.  These changes – reducing initial planting density, modifying site preparation (plowing that is called “bedding”), more natural control of understory vegetation, eliminating planting and harvesting in wetlands, and reducing the size and controlling the timing of harvesting – are all improvements that could counter-balance some of the impacts of their proposed development.

      Plum Creek’s current proposal includes the destruction of 400 acres of wetlands, and would require the County to eliminate our wetlands protection standards on their property. But currently, the company’s standard forestry practices are negatively impacting tens of thousands of acres of wetlands in Alachua County and are drying out the land, all of which might be changed for the better in a negotiated planning agreement. While the science is lagging behind the policy implications, good faith efforts based on returning forestry practices to more closely mimic natural forests will almost certainly improve water quality and increase aquifer recharge.

      Plum Creek has made substantial commitments to the conservation of water within their proposed development, especially in outdoor residential usage. While there is less water use per capita in Gainesville than most other Florida communities, there is considerable room for further conservation in existing homes and businesses which is an opportunity for a negotiated agreement to further urban water conservation – if it was only being discussed.  There are other possibilities for alternative water supplies, such as the use of surface water, which need to be explored further before any assumptions are made that pulling water from the already depleted aquifer can be considered.

      The disposal of wastewater is also a concern.  The range of options is limited to combinations of: a) pumping long distances to existing municipal treatment facilities; b) injection into the deep aquifer, which Gainesville already does, but new permits for which are difficult to obtain; c) disposal into surface water such as Lochloosa Creek; and d) maximizing re-use such as in agriculture.  Because the eventual outfalls for wastewater or stormwater – Lochloosa and Orange Lakes – are already polluted by too many nutrients, this means effluent will have to be cleaned to an extraordinary degree. This can be accomplished with a combination of pumps, tanks, and chemistry followed by a large wetland treatment basin, similar to what the City of Gainesville finally achieved with its Main Street Wastewater Plant and Sweetwater Flow-way Project. This represents many tens of millions of dollars of investment, which must be engineered, permitted, and built prior to the other development going in.  It’s important to get a firm commitment for who is paying for this speculative infrastructure, and not find ourselves having to subsidize expensive plumbing as has occurred in most of our smaller communities.  

      Tacachale Town

      Tacachale is a nursing facility operated by Florida’s Agency for Persons with Disabilities (APD) and is located on a large tract of land in East Gainesville. This agency is the single largest employer in the eastern half of Alachua County. Tacachale is currently home to around 400 clients, most of whom are profoundly disabled by chronic intellectual deficits or physical limitations. They are cared for by 1100 employees in an operation with a budget of $58 million. 

      While the staff is well-trained and thoroughly committed to their compassionate work, the antiquated facilities continue to be ignored by a state government that is systematically de-prioritizing health and human services spending. Tacachale’s physical plant has considerable deferred maintenance and portions of the campus are no longer in use.

      While nobody from the Agency is allowed to admit it, the State is clearly neglecting this facility, and it is not a question of "if" the state will close the campus and declare it surplus, but "when".  Four of its sister “Sunlands” have been closed previously. When this happens, the single largest employer in East Gainesville will be out of business with devastating impacts to its workforce.  And the ultimate purchaser of the surplus property may or may not seek to redevelop the land in a way that benefits the community or re-employs the workers. Rather than await an uncertain fate with no plan, the City of Gainesville and Alachua County, and institutions like the Chamber of Commerce, the University of Florida and Santa Fe College should be proactive in re-imaging this space and proactively engaging the State about a brighter future. 

      Role for Water and Land Legacy funds

      In November, 2014, the voters of Florida passed a constitutional amendment that set aside $500+ million per year for land conservation.  Unfortunately, the Legislature which is philosophically opposed to land conservation, chooses to spend the funds on other State projects.  But if they were to properly allocate these monies, by a simple proportion of population at least $7 million should be spent in our county annually for the next two decades to protect our most important natural resources.  

      The land Plum Creek owns east of Windsor is ideally suited for becoming a state forest, or water management district property, or a locally owned "community forest".  It is the missing link between existing natural areas to the north and south, and could play the critical role in restoring an impaired watershed. The State of Florida could purchase this land in one year, or on an installment basis and the funds from that expenditure could transform eastern Alachua County in two important ways.

      The first and obvious benefit is that we would have a large conservation area and working forest that would provide recreation and economic return on a scale that few communities enjoy.  It would also ensure a permanent supply of biomass and would protect an important surface watershed in the event a reservoir becomes necessary due to aquifer depletion. 

      But more importantly, the vision of Envision Alachua could be realized if Plum Creek were to use just a portion of the proceeds of this land sale to directly benefit East Gainesville in the following way:

      1)  Build a modern skilled nursing facility that would accommodate all of the current and projected Tacachale clients and their special needs.  If the project is planned correctly, any future reduction in state-sponsored clients could be back-filled with private clients, as there is a long-term projected shortage of assisted living and skilled nursing facilities state-wide.  This new facility would keep the single largest employer in East Gainesville in business for the rest of the century regardless of what the State ultimately plans for Tacachale.  

      2)   After building the new Tacachale facility, which should be a multi-story building on a much smaller footprint (5-10 acres), Plum Creek would swap the facility to the State for title to the remainder of Tachachale’s land. The value of the new building would be roughly the real estate value of several hundred acres.  The property is high and dry, is situated across from UF’s eastside campus and adjacent to the existing Walmart.  It has substantial frontage on four-lane State Road 24 (Waldo Road), has excellent infrastructure including a rail trail along its western boundary, and is within minutes of Innovation Square, GTEC, the Shands/VA complex, Gainesville Regional Airport, and the old Fairgrounds (which may soon be Plum Creek’s land if a proposed swap is completed).  

      3)   Virtually everything that is proposed for Envision Alachua’s SR 20 Job Center can be accommodated on the Waldo Road sites, particularly if the land swap encompasses portions of other state lands that are now part of Newnans Lake State Forest and the North Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center. Placing the advanced manufacturing, research facilities, and mixed use commercial and residential in the center of East Gainesville puts jobs right where they are most needed, dramatically reduces transportation issues, does not result in extensive and expensive utility infrastructure, eliminates virtually all of the environmental concerns, and has minimal impact to adjacent landowners.  

      Moving forward

      I had hoped for a serious economic analysis by Plum Creek and/or by the County of this proposal, but neither has engaged in it so far. The reason why, which is endemic to our failure to do good planning, is that private company officials will not engage in planning on the public’s land, and government officials usually do not initiate planning changes on the property of private landowners. We need to work more harmoniously to solve our problems.

      Fortunately, in my conversations with company officials, county staff, state officials, and some community leaders, there is a growing willingness to explore the details of this further. Many recognize and express to me that our current trajectory is destructive to our community’s cohesiveness, and could have negative consequences in future years as political pendulums swing. The uncertainty for people who are investing time, energy, passion, and potentially hundreds of millions of dollars, in successive 3-2 local government votes, can be crippling to many other causes we hold dear and to the mutually beneficial outcomes we seek.

      In the next few months, hopefully with the cooperation of Plum Creek, the County Commission, State leaders, and stakeholders, my plan is to continue seeking a solution that bridges the divide that the current process creates.  Please let me know how you can help.

      Interactive Map of Eastern Alachua County​

      Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson
      Alachua County Commissioner
      (352) 256-6043

    • Prisms: Bending some light onto business locations

      2013-06-25 14:00:00

      ​There’s a lot of fuss right now about the “Prism” program, where the National Security Agency examines the communications data which surrounds each of us like a cloud of pesky insects. This data defines our interests and contacts, and could signal to a faraway computer that we have terrorist tendencies. But as a longtime resident of eastern Alachua County, the program that has a much greater impact on my quality of life is coincidentally also called PRIZM. It is a privately operated database that segments communities based on a number of demographic traits – in their words:

      “PRIZM defines every U.S. household in terms of 66 demographically and behaviorally distinct types, or "segments," to help marketers discern those consumers’ likes, dislikes, lifestyles and purchase behaviors. Used by thousands of marketers within Fortune 500 companies, PRIZM provides the "common language" for marketing in an increasingly diverse and complex American marketplace.”

      You can play with it here.

      The operators of market segmentation programs aggregate and analyze huge amounts of data – some from public sources such as the census and local government, and other data from retailers who know what we purchase. Because communities in America are relatively homogeneous in their sociological makeup, development patterns, and economic traits, the folks behind PRIZM have only discovered 66 different types of us. They have given our groups names, which are generally less offensive than what these neighborhoods and socio-economic groups have traditionally been called.

      PRIZM says that the 32641 zip code in southeastern Gainesville and Alachua County includes five predominant classifications, known as (I am not making this up): Old Glories, New Beginnings, Hometown Retired, American Classics, and Old Milltowns. Compare this to a different local zip-code, say 32605, where you find the following market segments living: Executive Suites, Gray Power, New Empty Nesters, Suburban Sprawl , and Young Influentials. Behind each of these quaint or silly names is a large amount of data and conclusions, for instance:

      “Young Influentials” 2013 Statistics

      • US Households: 1,644,094 (1.38%)
      • Median HH Income: $48,177
      Lifestyle & Media Traits
      • Shop at Best Buy
      • Play racquetball
      • Read Details
      • Watch American Dad
      • Mitsubishi Eclipse
      Demographics Traits
      • Urbanicity: Suburban
      • Income: Midscale
      • Income Producing Assets: Below Avg
      • Age Ranges: <35
      • Presence of Kids: HH w/o Kids
      • Homeownership: Renters
      • Employment Levels: WC, Service, Mix
      • Education Levels: College Graduate
      • Ethnic Diversity: White, Black, Asian, Hispanic, Mix

      This is just a tiny amount of the information available on PRIZM’s “snapshot” page – to delve deeper into demographics, lifestyles, media, and other aspects of this group, you have to pay the Nielsen Company a hefty subscription fee. They will show you where similar market segments live in other neighborhoods and cities, so that if you have a successful business near one of these neighborhoods, you can safely assume that its chances of success in another city will be improved if you locate near folks in the same PRIZM categories.

      The power of these geographic databases to determine future business success based on correlations to past successful sites cannot be exaggerated. The problem is, they create self-replicating business behaviors and probably stifle some neighborhoods based on characteristics that will be slow to change. It is cyber-redlining.

      I attended an ACTION Network meeting in early June, and there was vocal frustration among these community leaders that the eastside of Gainesville continues to suffer from minimal business investment. There are few restaurants and retail establishments in a place that once had many more. As an elected official, I can tell a crowd like this that there is only so much government can do: we can improve infrastructure, we can lessen the regulatory complexity and cost of development, and we have some small financial tools to incentivize business relocation and expansion.

      But at the end of the day, government cannot tell private businesses where to locate. That’s for the easily accessed programs like PRIZM, where business owners looking to expand their franchises can quickly determine where their chances of success are best and where their risk of failure is lowest. So it is this PRIZM program and its soul-less clones, not the NSA’s Prism robots checking my phone logs, that is affecting my neighborhood’s livability.

      We must counter demographic determinism, and doing so requires the community to buy-in to programs that make our neighborhoods more attractive, especially to mom-and-pop start-ups and young entrepreneurs. Initially, we will not be able to counter the harsh dictatorship of siting data, but we can grow our own businesses in places where it costs less to get going. In the early 1990s, when the Gainesville Downtown Redevelopment Agency was struggling to make our inner core a viable place for business, one yardstick was to successfully attract a national franchise restaurant. Most were not willing to be the first to locate downtown, but eventually Hooters opened a restaurant which was the encouragement needed to attract a Burger King nearby. Now, these might not seem like great economic development victories, but at the time they were important benchmarks for our downtown redevelopment efforts. Today, neither business is in their downtown locations, but their brief presence gave confidence to the many successful local restaurants that have followed. To produce ripples, you have to toss a stone into the pond.

      There’s much more light to be shed on the topic of encouraging east-side redevelopment, which I plan to discuss in a future article. Please let me know your thoughts and ideas via e-mail to:

    • Transparency and Accountability

      2013-06-24 11:00:00

      For more than a decade, Alachua County has set a high bar for public involvement with our activities. We were the first local government in the U.S. to place incoming and outgoing Commission e-mail on a public web-site. We broadcast and replay many local government meetings, and produce magazine and talk show format television for the local access channel that further explains how County government functions. Our website contains all the same back-up material that Commissioners receive, and has lots of information about our programs. The County has expanded into social media, and will continue to seek ways to engage people in our processes.

      I requested that a blogspace be added to Commissioners’ website because public meetings are not always the best place to explore ideas in depth or to explain the basis for a particular vote. I don’t know how other Commissioners will use this opportunity, but my intent is to link to research that has influenced my decision-making, to pose questions or suggest answers that require more dialog, and to respond to specific questions. Our public e-mail archives and our social media presence don’t lend themselves to more thoughtful communication – and we need more thought put into our decisions.

      I encourage people who are concerned about issues that the County should be dealing with to send an e-mail to my County address: Hutch@AlachuaCounty.usor to call me at (352) 264-6900. ~Hutch​