Government advisory boards rarely make news, especially those related to issues like planning and land zoning.
An exception came last November at an Alachua County planning commission meeting where eight appointed members were required to decide the fate of a land development proposal known as Envision Alachua, put forward by Plum Creek, a timber corporation. As that November meeting began, Gainesville city employee Forrest Eddleton submitted his resignation — a move later subject to scrutiny by activists and the county commission.
County commissioners asked the city why Eddleton was asked to resign, but they did not receive a response.
Fast forward to Tuesday, when the county commission appointed a replacement to Eddleton.
They decided in a unanimous vote that Summer Griggs Harris should fill the board’s vacant citizen-at-large position.
Griggs is a (mostly) lifelong Gainesville resident, with a detour in Tallahassee to earn two degrees; she got her bachelor’s at Florida A&M and her law degree at Florida State. When she moved back to Gainesville, she knew she would call its eastern community home.
Plum Creek’s Envision Alachua plan was said to be focused on bringing economic development to East Gainesville. The county commission rejected Envision Alachua in March, though Weyerhaeuser, which bought Plum Creek, could revise and bring forward a new development plan during Griggs’ tenure on the planning commission.
Here’s some of what Griggs, 38, had to say about her new position, her background, and her thoughts on bringing prosperity to everyone living in Alachua County.
How and when did you become interested in the planning commission?
In general, I’m interested in the government of our county. As a business owner and longtime resident of Gainesville, I have recently become involved in different organizations, such as the Chamber of Commerce… I went out looking for different vacancies, and found things that would be of interest to me. This one was of interest to me because at the time that I found it, we were going through the Plum Creek decision, and it was something that was so monumental to me, that could affect our community, that I just needed to be involved.
Maybe about a year ago I was just kind of paying attention to what was going on with local meetings. I participated in a tour (of Plum Creek’s lands) and was just interested in what was going on with the fabric of our community. Gainesville’s a small town; I love our small-town feel, but we are experiencing a huge growth recently. That’s good. And that’s bad. I feel that I really wanted to have a part and say so on what’s happening with our area. We can keep our feel, but also experience growth that we need. I wasn’t really on one side or the other side for (Plum Creek’s proposal), but it just opened my eyes to the fact that we need more voices to talk about the direction of our county.
In your application, you mention the “branding” of Alachua County. What does that mean to you?
Sometimes we become a little one-sided with Alachua County. We have a lot of different issues that come up over and over again — especially in the City of Gainesville. We want different growth in certain areas of town, but I think the reason we’re not seeing it is we’re not branding our county properly. Sometimes we give certain areas a bad name because we’re not focusing on the good in some of those areas. If we focus more on the branding, people can see why we want to breathe life in some of these other areas.
By other areas, you mean places like East Gainesville?
Yes. It’s a historic problem. I’m from Gainesville. I grew up in the Pleasant Street District, which has its own historical framework. Once I relocated, my mother actually relocated to the east side of town. By living there, I saw so many different activities and so much participation in that area that people weren’t aware of. From softball games to the parks being packed full on Saturdays with people of all ages, of all races. It’s a beautiful thing to see, but I think people don’t understand how much beauty is on that side of town. We have nature trails. There’s so many different things, and we’re focusing on the wrong things instead of on the beauty that’s there. Maybe that’ll draw people to us and help the problem from a base level.
Have you attended planning commission meetings?
I’ve attended one meeting in person. Let me be honest, I’ve attended through a lot of the video recordings. Thank God for the internet and technology.
I’m an attorney. Our schedules can get very hectic and so sometimes it’s hard for me to physically be in a place, but I stay tuned through the internet recordings.
Do you know any of the current planning commission members through your connections in the community?
I don’t know them personally.
What did you think of Envision Alachua?
There were some things I supported and some things I was concerned about. I’m all about the growth of Gainesville. But there were certain things I was concerned about.
What was the nature of your concerns?
There were a few environmental concerns. And locational things. We were talking about transportation and where we were going to be building things. Is this going to be something that’s actually viable and accessible for citizens? I know (Plum Creek) had its own transportation plan, but I had my own concern.
It might be hard for people to get to (the Envision Alachua job sites). I have a passion for the most vulnerable citizens — the elderly, the youth, the disabled. I want to make sure we’re not making decisions off of our own accessibility. Because I can get to a lot of things — I want to make sure everyone can access the same things I can.
What would you be inclined to greenlight as a member of the commission that would benefit the East Gainesville economy?
They’re building new homes out there… not only single-family homes. That’s huge. We also need to think about different provisions for people who live there, that they have access to groceries, gas, ATMs, retail, those things. We have the county health department out there. We have GTEC. We’re getting some big industries, but what about the smaller industries to support the people that come out there?
My biggest flag that I wave for the east side of Gainesville is the coffee shop. Why is there not a coffee shop in the east side of Gainesville. All of these hardworking people over there, and where can they go for a cup of coffee?
Can I have that, please?