If you haven’t yet become aware of the magnitude of the Plum Creek plan in eastern Alachua County, Robert Hutchinson offers this perspective.
“This is the largest decision this community has faced since — probably — when we enticed the University of Florida to come here,” county commissioner “Hutch” said last week, noting he can no longer make it through a grocery store line without someone asking him about Plum Creek. “This is a big deal.”
And it’s hard to fathom UF’s arrival in Alachua County 100 years ago causing the amount of controversy that Plum Creek’s proposal has in the past few years.
Hutchinson said he’s likely to be the deciding swing vote when his five-member county commission decides whether to allow Plum Creek Timber Company to rezone portions of its land in eastern Alachua County.
“We need to get it right… if it’s a 50-year plan, we can take a few weeks or months if necessary to work out details,” he said.
Plum Creek will present its Envision Alachua Sector Plan to the five county commissioners in public meetings Tuesday and Thursday at Eastside High School at 5 p.m. The company’s purpose: state its case for why at least three commissioners should vote for transmittal, sending the sector plan to the state for review. The state can make changes, and then it would come back to the county for one more vote.
Plum Creek owns the most private land in Alachua County and five years ago began to create a sector plan — a special planning provision for those who own at least 15,000 acres — allowing it to expand the county’s comprehensive plan.
“This was something that the state started as kind of a pilot to see (if) sector plans really achieve more for communities than just a standard comprehensive plan change,” said April Salter of SalterMitchell, a Tallahassee public relations firm Plum Creek hired to help manage the Envision Alachua campaign.
Greg Galpin, Plum Creek’s senior manager for planning, said Plum Creek wanted Envision Alachua to be transparent and invite the community into the conversation.
Galpin said the community expressed three concerns: improving the community, economic development outside UF, and nature conservation.
Envision Alachua proposes two job centers, one along State Road 20 and one near U.S. Route 301. Salter said the sector plan allows the community to look at long-term planning, instead of piecemeal development. The company is also proposing nearly 25,000 acres of its land be protected from development in Alachua County.
The two sides (and Hutch)
Not everyone agrees with Envision Alachua’s logistics.
Members of Stand By Our Plan, a local activist group opposed to Envision Alachua, will be prominent during this week’s public hearings. James Thompson, who supports Stand By Our Plan, said he is concerned about the reality of Plum Creek’s promises.
He’s also concerned about how effective Plum Creek’s messaging has been in East Gainesville, where concerns of economic opportunity can trump environmental worries.
“People who are interested in environmental justice need to frame their solutions and problems in terms that working people can better understand… to talk about future generations and what the world around us is going to look like if we keep growing out, out, out and not in and up,” he said.
Hutchinson said Plum Creek has the right idea — it’s just in the wrong place.
In January, he wrote a letter to The Gainesville Sun outlining his concerns and proposed a plan of his own.
Instead of building job centers east of Newnans Lake, he suggested development along Waldo Road. To make this work, Hutchinson said the county would use Amendment 1 state funds to purchase a part of Plum Creek’s land.
Plum Creek would then keep some of the money and use the other half of the money to replace the existing Tacachale Center, which has fallen into disrepair.
Restoring Tacahale would save jobs currently at risk if Tacachale were to close, Hutchinson said.