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.
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.
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 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.
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