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Alachua County Commission upholds residents’ wishes; West End property remains recreational

West End supporters filled the benches in the commission's meeting room on Tuesday. Around 30 of them traveled together on a bus to attend. (Emma Behrmann/WUFT News)
West End supporters filled the benches in the commission's meeting room on Tuesday. Around 30 of them traveled together on a bus to attend. (Emma Behrmann/WUFT News)

Not a single seat remained in the Jack Durrance Board Room Tuesday. Newberry residents lined the wooden benches, donning golf ball stickers that read “We care.”

After more than four hours of presentations, public comment and commissioner discussion, the room erupted into applause.

The Alachua County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1, with Commissioner Raemi Eagle-Glenn in dissent, to keep the West End Golf Club property recreational in a transmittal hearing. The vote halts developer Sayed Moukhtara and JBrown Professional Group from constructing a 70-home subdivision named Tara Club.

JBrown Professional Group requested a large-scale amendment, which included a land use change for the 75-acre site from recreational to low-density residential and text amendments to the county’s comprehensive plan. The board voted on whether to transmit the amendment to the Department of Economic Opportunity in Tallahassee for review. Its decision not to transmit maintains West End as a green space for the community.

Residents and members of the West End Community Alliance for Recreation and Education have advocated for this decision for nearly three years, starting around the time the course closed in December 2019. The initial redevelopment proposal for the golf course was submitted to the county in 2020, requesting a land use change and rezoning to accommodate 418 homes and more than 200,000 square feet of non-residential space. The current proposal, submitted in December 2021, limited the subdivision to 140 homes and was modified again March 24 to reduce the number of homes to 70.

Jay Brown, president of JBrown Professional Group, presented for the developer among groans from the audience. He said through numerous workshops and community feedback they have created dozens of designs. Their final design included 70 homes, 37 acres of recreational land that would be dedicated to Alachua County as a park and 10 acres of open space.

“We adjusted our plans for no other reason than neighbors,” Brown said. “We created an application that’s sensitive to the surrounding neighborhoods. It’s single-family only, very low density, half the property is set aside as a park.”

But there was still opposition. This came from both residents and the county’s planning commission.

Jerry Brewington, the senior planner for the Alachua County Growth Management Department, advised the commissioners to not transmit to the state the comprehensive plan map and text amendments submitted by the developer.

He cited inconsistencies with the county’s comprehensive plan. The proposed 70 homes are under two units per acre, which is not an optimal use of the land, according to the plan. The proposal also fails to provide a connecting road, reduce car trips and increase connectivity for bicyclists and pedestrians.

“The plan envisions compact development at densities to support mass rapid transit whenever possible and interconnected to surrounding development,” Brewington said. “By proposing a low-density development whose primary connection is Newberry Road, the applicant is diverging from the strategies envisioned.”

WECARE President Paul Hornby also asked the board to not transmit the developer’s large-scale comprehensive plan. However, his reasoning resided with the community’s desire for green space.

They’ve fought for three years.

On Sept. 23, they lined the side of Newberry Road, waving signs to “stay the course” and “save West End.” On Tuesday, 21 of them took to the lectern to voice their opinions. Ten of them gave up their three minutes to Hornby and Thomas Hawkins, a professional land planner the group hired, so the two could give a 30-minute presentation.

They promoted a multi-use, multi-generational recreational space for the entire community to enjoy. A plethora of possibilities could exist at West End: a dog park, an aquatic center or a driving range.

“This would be a crown jewel for the county if something like this could materialize,” Hornby said.

Hawkins homed in on the legal side of the issue and said the county’s plan is the law.

“If you are moving land out of that recreation category into that low-density residential category, you are going in the opposite direction to what your [comprehensive] plan calls for,” Hawkins said.

Residential land dominates Jonesville’s landscape already with four subdivisions underway behind the West End property. What the community lacks, Hawkins said, is recreation.

The people who followed Hornby and Hawkins’ presentation echoed these sentiments.

Julia Ellis, a licensed psychologist and 28-year resident of Gainesville, supported recreational space due to its health benefits.

“We are seeing far more anxiety in children, far more obesity in children, far less social skills in children,” Ellis said. “They don’t know how to navigate their social environment. They don’t play like we used to.”

Three-minute speeches filled with anecdotes and passion continued until the last person standing in the line that reached the back of the room was done. Then, the commissioners weighed in.

“I’m not hearing any compromise,” Commissioner Ken Cornell said. “I’m actually hearing the opposite that the [comprehensive] plan is our community’s plan for the vision of the future, and we need more recreational spaces.”

Four of the five commissioners agreed with Cornell. But Eagle-Glenn favored the developer’s proposal.

“I don’t see this property on a major corridor remaining recreational,” she said. “What they’re offering us today is an opportunity to limit what I see within the next 10 years becoming a TND (traditional neighborhood development) with density of up to 200 units and commercial.”

Commissioner Anna Prizzia disagreed. She doesn’t see West End ever becoming a traditional neighborhood development unless the county dramatically changes its existing comprehensive plan.

“I think threatening the community with that TND is kind of disingenuous,” she said.

Despite the dissent among Eagle-Glenn and the other commissioners, the board upheld the community’s wishes and kept West End recreational.

Now, Moukhtara can’t hire builders to develop Tara Club. He does not yet own the land, but he said he intends to purchase it even after the board’s decision and his lack of recreational plans.

“Owning the property is my dream,” he said.

With Moukhtara set on purchasing the land, dead palm fronds and knee-high weeds could continue to decorate West End’s exterior, but it will not see development any time soon.

WECARE and its supporters were heard.

“It starts with our green space,” Cornell said. “And our community is desperately telling us now, tonight and tomorrow, preserve it, acquire more of it, take care of it.”

Emma is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.