Within a month, the public will know what the eastern part of Alachua County will look like in the next 25 years.
Will Plum Creek’s proposed change to the county’s growth plan pass through county commission or get voted down? And if it passes, how quickly will the eastern part of the county — largely a wetland today — begin to change?
One certainty: Alachua County has more than tripled in population in the past 50 years, and the state projects another 50,000 people will live here by 2040. We’re going to keep growing.
Plum Creek Timber Company, which owns the most private land in the county and across Florida, would like to see some of that growth spread east of Gainesville.
The local Sierra Club group, Suwannee-St. Johns, last week published a podcast series critical of Plum Creek. Titled “Plum Pudding,” it asks questions similar to those raised by local activist group Stand By Our Plan.
George Sibley, 68, is series producer and host. He lives in Daytona Beach and became interested in Plum Creek’s proposed development in Alachua County when the company had to withdraw its first plan in 2014 after Alachua County staff raised objections.
He credited that victory, in part, to Stand By Our Plan, whose name references the county’s comprehensive plan:
The Comprehensive Plan directly and indirectly influences all aspects of daily life, including where people live, work, eat, shop, conduct business, what activities and natural areas are available to visit and enjoy, and how you are able to get to and from these places.
How did a person living in Daytona Beach take an interest in this very local issue?
“I’ve been active in environmental projects off and on,” said Sibley, who says he has produced documentary films for nearly 50 years. “I’m always swearing off doing more but always get intrigued by something else.”
In the past six months, he’s spent hundreds of hours reporting on the company’s plans. He interviewed county commissioner Mike Byerly at length about his objections, spoke with concerned residents living near the proposed development, and talked to scientists who don’t like the idea of developing near a wetland.
“Building on a wetland has never been a good idea,” Sibley said. “As I’ve learned from poking around, there’s some very serious reasons that Alachua County has more to worry about,” such as a “cone of depression” that has developed in certain areas of the county’s aquifer because of too much water use.
One voice not included in the podcast? Plum Creek. He didn’t leave them out by accident.
“They’re always talking about their stuff,” Sibley said. “They have a big effort on their side… Plum Creek does a great job of putting the message out in their terms — all this magic stuff about jobs.”
Plum Creek’s Envision Alachua is a well-produced multi-year campaign:
Among its promises:
- 30,000 “potential jobs” for eastern Alachua County in 50 years, particularly in agriculture and manufacturing.
- Increased tax base.
- Help the county and its colleges “compete in the state, national and global economies.”
If county commissioners vote in February to change the zoning rules in that area, the company stands to make a large profit as the county grows.
Sibley makes that point often in “Plum Pudding.” The first five parts went live Friday on SoundCloud, but the sixth part required national Sierra Club approval and hasn’t yet been posted. Sibley says it covers events in late 2015 and early 2016 — up until February’s vote.
The politics and the vote
Back in November, the county planning board voted to recommend to county commissioners that they approve the plan. Two of the seven board members — Eileen Roy and Tim Rockwell — voted against it, while four voted yes.
The last board member resigned minutes before the meeting began. It is that resignation of City of Gainesville urban planner Forrest Eddleton that has come into question.
Three months later, the Alachua County Commission wants to know why Eddleton resigned. The county sent a letter to the city last week trying to get answers to that and other questions.
Why ask for answers now?
By sending the letter to the city, the commission hopes to clear the air before a decision: “The County Commission is concerned with how this action might affect public perception of the integrity of the County’s development approval process and we would appreciate a timely response.”
Public meetings about the development are scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 16 and Thursday, Feb. 18 from 5 to 9 p.m. at Eastside High School.