Bridget Thomas was curious to see Alachua County surveyors walking along her property fence line in High Springs.
The 2019 U.S. National Championship dog trainer and her husband Mike Gumpper purchased the property in December to build a training center. Six months later, a plan to build a waste transfer facility threatened their dreams.
In late June, more than 100 neighbors of the Forest Grove community, located between High Springs and Newberry, learned Alachua County had planned to build the waste facility.
“A lot of the community members felt like it was, you know, backhanded, or under the cover of night because nobody knew this was happening,” said Wallis Simmons, who organized the community.
The community’s successful pushback against the proposal has left the county without a location for its new waste transfer center, which is needed as soon as possible, according to Gus Olmos, director of solid waste and recovery for Alachua County.
A business deal
Olmos said the county was going through the early stages of the due diligence process for identifying the right property for the waste transfer facility.
They sought to relocate the U.S. 441 existing Alachua/High Springs Rural Collection Center to a parcel of land located at 110th Avenue on the corner of U.S. 27 and State Road 45.
“The size and location fit the county’s basic needs, but not much more,” Simmons said.
The proposed 20-acre facility would have been located within 500 and 700 feet of 10 to 12 residential properties, Gumpper said.
Other issues with the property
The High Springs community was worried about traffic, the smell, pests and environmental factors.
“Immediately, everyone thinks about their property value, right?” Simmons said. “And the next thing everybody thinks about is the actual physical result of having a dump station there.”
In addition to the location being so close to residents, Alachua County has designated the land a springs protection area, with a sign posted directly in front of the property. Newberry City Commissioner Tim Marden “said there are also two sinkholes on the site.”
“There are bodies of water as close to a mile to the west,” Marden said.
The proposed site is needed to collect household hazardous waste, and that includes oils and motor oils, he said. This could pose a threat to the springs in the area.
Gumpper was the first to bring up the news of the plans on Facebook, where it took a life of its own. None of his neighbors or county commissioners knew about it, he said.
Simmons calls Gumpper, “the whistleblower.”
Gumpper and Simmons were two of over a dozen residents calling and emailing their bewildered commissioners. The plan for purchase was set to go before the Alachua Board of County Commissioners on July 13, he said.
To build up support for their cause, opponents of the waste transfer facility posted fliers across the community. Neighbors who had never spoken began calling each other, and a petition to halt the build garnered almost 200 signatures.
The petition posted in late June asks commissioners to leave the land be.
The community’s final act was crashing a joint meeting of the Alachua Board of County Commissioners and the City of Newberry. The waste facility was not on the agenda.
The Forest Grove Community is a rural neighborhood scattered with homes and agricultural land. Many residents had never spoken, only distantly waving at their neighbors, before joining forces to stop the land purchase.
They learned of the site on a Friday, sent information out through all channels on Saturday, going door-to-door with fliers and arranged a Sunday meeting just before the Monday night commissioner meeting.
“I pulled up the agenda,” Simmons said. “It specifically said that there would be public comments at the end, and I said we do not have to wait till the 13th of July. We can go like now it is right here.”
A community comes together
Over a dozen community members spoke at the joint meeting, highlighting different concerns.
A fourth-generation farmer named Jared Fletcher spoke about the heritage of the land. Heather McCall cited the environmental effects. Sammy Nelson mentioned traffic and safety.
“It was really important to us as a little community that we come at it more of an educational point of view than an emotional, confrontational point of view,” Simmons said.
Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe offered a solution at the meeting — for the county to buy 50 acres surrounding the Newberry Wastewater Treatment Facility.
“It sounded like it would be a wonderful thing for Newberry and a wonderful addition to the regional treatment facility site that we are working on,” Marlowe said.
The county commission ultimately voted unanimously against the build. Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler’s district is near the proposed site.
“It was just nice to hear people come out and advocate for their community and their home and be in a position to say they were right,” she said.
Since the meeting, Wheeler has received comments thanking her for her support of Forest Grove and concerns about the distance to Newberry for the rural waste center. Newberry still wants to work with Alachua County to place a rural collection center in the city, City Manager Mike New said.