Five months after a housing development plan was approved, homeowners are still trying to find a way to shut it down.
The Gainesville 121 development plan was approved by the Gainesville City Commission in April. City commissioners voted 6-1. Mayor Harvey Ward was the only one who voted against the plan.
Weyerhaeuser, a timber company, owns 1,778 acres of undeveloped rural land along state Road 121 and north of U.S. 441, which is near an Amazon facility. The property has been an agriculture zone for decades. The approved plan will develop approximately 32% of the acreage and include construction of affordable housing and other residential-related projects.
In 2015, Weyerhaeuser acquired the acreage from Plum Creek, a developer that partnered with Weyerhaeuser that same year. The combined company owns more than 13 million acres of land and operates 38 wood products manufacturing facilities in the U.S. Weyerhaeuser has its Florida headquarters located in Newberry.
WUFT reached out to the city for comment, but a city representative said no one was available for an interview. Weyerhaeuser did not return a request for comment after multiple phone calls.
Stacey Waldrop, 57, has lived near this land for 19 years and doesn’t want the development to move forward.
“They’re voting for people that aren’t even there,” she said. “They’re voting for the one developer that has the money. Not the birds, not the bald eagle.”
She remembers picking up trash with her grandmother as a little girl in Wimauma, Florida Her grandmother taught her it was important to take care of the land.
Projected water consumption from land development would dry out three creeks: Rocky, Hatchet and Turkey Creek, she said.
“It breaks my heart,” she said. “I thought there were people on the commission that wanted to help Gainesville. This is not helping Gainesville.”
She said the property is a major wetland and water filtration field. Previous attempts to develop the land were unsuccessful because of the wetland areas.
Public documents on the project show there are no utility services near the property, which have to be installed. An elevated bridge would also have to be built over a CSX Transportation railroad that runs along 441, which intersects with Northwest 34th Boulevard.
“I don’t feel like they’re making smart, informed decisions,” Waldrop said. “I think the mayor dissented because he doesn’t want to be part of that legacy that is going to build on wetlands. When there’s problems out there, we’re going to be looking at these people that voted to do this.”
Waldrop isn’t the only resident who is opposed to the development. Deb Stucki, 67, is trying to contact a member of the Department of Sustainable Development from the City of Gainesville.
If Weyerhaeuser plans to use federal funds to build new roads, it has to follow the National Environmental Policy Act process, Stucki said.
In 2000, Stucki worked for the park service and trails office at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to build the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail.
She said the city commissioners downplayed the issue of transportation at the meeting in April.
“I just felt like they were really backed into a corner,” she said. “They couldn’t do anything but approve it. They didn’t want to deny it again, so that was really the only decision that they could make with the knowledge that it was going to take them 20 years to develop the project.”
“We have such a hard time coming to terms with all of this harsh development that people are trying to ram down our throats,” she said.
“We believe very strongly in sustainable growth, but we don’t want to see the rural lands and the conservation lands developed because those lands are important for wildlife and habitat,” said Tim Martin, 49, an executive committee member of the Suwannee St. Johns Sierra Club. “[The lands are] also important as carbon sinks to mitigate against climate change.”
Carbon sinks absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and carbon cycles maintain the flow of carbon in the atmosphere. Both regulate carbon dioxide, which stabilizes the Earth’s temperature.
“A group of scientists came up with this framework known as 30 by 30,” he said. “If we want to save the planet from a mass extinction event and we want to have any chance of beating the climate crisis, we need to conserve 30% of our natural lands by 2030 and 50 by 2050.”
Martin said the Sierra Club has also adopted this framework into its outlook on conservation.
“We live in a progressive county where you’d think they’d have this sort of awareness of the environmental factor and understand the realities of climate change and want to do something about it,” he said.
The planned development involves an initiative to provide affordable housing with high-density apartments.
“High-density is inappropriate in a rural area because that is contributing to sprawl,” Martin said. “Density is only smart growth if you’re doing it within your urban core. It’s not smart if you’re doing it out in the country. It’s the opposite.”
High-density sprawl, or urban sprawl, is defined as “rapid expansion of the geographic extent of cities and towns, often characterized by low-density residential housing, single-use zoning, and increased reliance on the private automobile for transportation.”
Martin and a few volunteers from the Sierra Club tried to meet with city commissioners before the meeting on April 6.
“The city has this ex parte rule, which forbids interested parties from speaking with any city commissioner outside of the meeting,” he said. “That wasn’t invoked before when we were talking to people, but I feel like the city staff probably felt threatened.”
Martin organized a group of about 200 neighbors to fight against the project. Despite multiple attempts to receive notice of the upcoming city commission meeting, he wasn’t aware of it until the night before. Four people from the group, including Martin, attended the meeting.
The city commission opened the meeting to public comment after two and a half hours.
“I’m not going to speak for three minutes,” he said. “How can I refute every talking point in three minutes?”
“This is the largest land-use decision that has been made in decades,” he said. “This will be, when it’s fully built out, larger than any other municipality in Alachua County other than Gainesville.”