A special area study on one of Alachua County’s 47 environmentally sensitive ecosystems will be evaluated Nov. 7 to determine what should be protected during potential development.
In 1996, Alachua County determined that the 5,311 acres known as Hickory Sink houses a strategic ecosystem – meaning it contains vulnerable natural resources and therefore requires extra attention from the county for development projects.
The Lee family, who owns 4,068 acres of the land, applied last year to develop residential housing and a golf course for the University of Florida on the property. That plan did not move past the final workshop phases with the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners.
Now, the Lee family’s front-runner plan for the land is to use 10% to 15% of the 4,068 acres for a UF golf course. Residential housing development is no longer included in the plan.
The property is located along both sides of Parker Road, west of Haile Plantation and south of Tioga. Although the updated plan involves significantly less impact on the natural environment, the prospect of any development on ecologically sensitive land is concerning, according to Jay Rosenbek, the co-chair of the Natural Resources Committee for the League of Women Voters in Alachua County.
“I’m going to do everything I can to make it clear to the county commission that that golf course needs to be built and maintained according to the very highest environmental standards,” he said.
The Lee family formally submitted its newest plan to the county commission on Sept. 19. Rosenbeck, 83, a UF professor emeritus, said the Lee family has emphasized conservation but at the same time is working to put the property to use while following county guidelines. The Lee property has been a major focus for the Natural Resources Committee for about 30 years, he said.
The property is home to more than 1,500 Gopher tortoises, a bat colony and small aquatic cave species. The land has fertile soil and is directly connected to the aquifer, which provides fresh drinking water.
Developing any part of the property will require delicacy and care, Rosenbeck said. Alachua County remains a conservation-focused county, but he said paving land and developing properties takes away from clean water, healthy soil and good air quality. Because of this concern, the Lee family’s plan could still face opposition from environmental advocates, he said.
“I know that there’s going to be some strong individual and institutional opposition,” Rosenbeck said. “One can never predict in these matters.”
Michael Castine, senior planner for Alachua County Growth Management, said the Lee family’s plan will have to go through multiple phases of approval to proceed with any development. If the current plan is approved, then the Lee family can move forward with plans to build a golf course. If the family wants to continue with other development projects, then another application must be submitted to the county.
“It would still be essentially farmland, or it would not be available for development anymore,” Castine said.
The Lee family is in the special area study phase of development, which means their consultant works with the county to map out what parts of the property can be developed and what parts are off-limits.
The Lee family’s consultant, Lindsay Haga, works for England-Times & Miller, Inc. She did not respond to WUFT’s interview request in time for publication.
Stephen Hofstetter, director of Alachua County Environmental Protection, has worked with the Lee family and the county on this development plan since the family made its first proposal last year.
The process for the county to approve land development could take about nine to 12 months, he said. The next phase, which could be approved Nov. 7, is the special area plan.
Once the Lee family presents its golf course plan, then about two more stages of approval must be completed before getting the green light from the county commissioners, Hofstetter said. Alachua County Growth Management, Public Works and Environmental Protection all work together to make sure these types of projects balance development needs with environmental preservation, he added.
“Especially out in the west side of the county where there’s a lot of heavy development pressure, I think there’s a need for green space,” Hofstetter said.
Determining how to develop property on environmentally sensitive land requires multiple perspectives, evaluations and collaboration, Hofstetter said. The county had to approve the consultants the Lee family chose to assist in this process. Geologists are also included in the conversation to evaluate the land’s vulnerability.
The Lee family is looking for a conservation easement from the state or federal level, he said, which would allow them to retain some property rights but hand over most of the agricultural land to the government for conservation efforts. If an agricultural conservation easement were approved, then the remainder of the land that isn’t used for UF’s golf course would be protected from development.
Alachua County residents and environmental advocates might still oppose the golf course, but Hofstetter said that decision will still take time.
“We’re not approving a golf course on [Nov. 7],” he said. “We’re approving what needs to be protected.”