PLUM CREEK VERSUS RURAL LIFE
IN ALACHUA COUNTY, FLORIDA:
A Modern Day David versus Goliath
Many of us remember the story of David and Goliath from days in Sunday school as children. The brave young David, the future King of Israel, volunteered to do battle against the Mighty Goliath, a Philistine, with the fate of his nation resting in the balance. As they squared off in the open field with large throngs cheering on both sides, the disparity between the two was obvious. David was strong but small and Goliath was a giant of a man, with bulging biceps and a menacing appearance which would make any warrior fearful.
The two stood silently peering at each other, but as Goliath began gradually closing the gap between them, David suddenly pulled out a slingshot, fitted it with a small stone, and began his wind up. Goliath looked confused but fearless until David unleashed the stone in his opponent’s direction and scored a direct hit, right between the eyes on Goliath's forehead. The giant had a strange look of shock on his face as he staggered and fell to his death. The battle was over and David was victorious.
Now fast forward to the current time here in Alachua County. We are in the midst of a modern day David and Goliath battle but with the size and strength measured in different ways. Plum Creek (PC), a large real estate investment trust (REIT), has requested a major exception to the county’s comprehensive plan in order to rezone sixty-five thousand acres of rural land, primarily wooded and wet. Being the largest landholder in both Alachua County and the nation, they feel entitled to do as they please regardless of the consequence to others and they have used a powerful public relations approach to sell their idea. While they do harvest timber on much of their land currently, the end goal is increasing the value of their land so that they can sell it high, after buying wilderness or wetlands cheap due to the seeming unlikelihood of massive development thereon at the time of purchase.
How do they increase the value? They do so by requesting rezoning for huge portions of their holdings to the most intense development level, in our local case multi-use classification, land which is very wet, much of it actually wetlands, and wooded property in the rural Eastern portion of the county. The land was categorized as rural by the most recent county comprehensive plan, recognizing the importance to maintain both rural and urban characteristics to the county and thereby allow for varied lifestyles. Current residents in the area in question are rural, live in accordance with very stringent requirements enforced by the county, but now they are faced with a wealthy large company attempting to change their way of life and impact their water in ways that heretofore were unimaginable.
The area in question is a watershed area with direct impact on area lakes, including Newnans, Lochloosa and Orange Lake, as well as the ground water levels and the aquifer. Numerous professionals in the water and forestry fields, including Dr. Robert Knight and Mr. Jack Putz, have discussed their concerns which are critically serious yet PC, with its large paid staff and consultant base disagrees and practically refuses to discuss the issues in any detail. Their presentations have been "dreams and fluff, not stuff". Additionally, the huge cost of infrastructure in such a rural and isolated location is not something they intend to address. The purpose of their proposal is to increase the value of the land (entitlement) through attainment of rezoning approval to allow heavy density in what is now a significant portion of their holdings. These holding are located in a significant part of what remains of Old Florida or “Cracker Country", a swampy, wetlands area which used to cover fifty percent of the state.
While PC is clearly a Goliath, a large group of citizens including this writer, organized originally by rural folks but now including many city residents who see the danger imposed to the county’s environment, have joined together to fight this huge project. We call ourselves Stand By Our Plan, which means standing by the existing Comprehensive Plan for future development. The group’s makeup is quite unique, consisting of both ends of the political spectrum and everything in between. It shows that when people have a common interest and can get past the personal political bias that each of us holds to some degree, we can build a strong and cohesive force for action. The group is not opposed to all development, but it is certainly opposed to development where the lay of the land is violated, water is either depleted or loses its high quality and common sense is flushed down the toilet. And after completing four planning workshops following the county planning staff’s tentative recommendation for disapproval, PC is now leveraging its power through its financial clout with the local newspaper and groups that it has blessed with its contributions to demand that compromise be considered.
So now the problem appears to be most directly with the County Commissioners, a group that consists in its majority of elected leaders who have taken no position. They have received the planning interim report, have heard from the citizens who are opposed as well as some in favor, and they are also now privy to some very technical data by subject matter experts on water and forestry. The one thing they can’t deny is the clean water problem that the county, as well as the entire state, is facing directly and the impact that this project will have on the character of life in Alachua County. Will it be a varied lifestyle community with options for both urban and rural living as it is now or will it forsake its heritage to emulate its large neighbor, Jacksonville? That is at the heart of the argument and the irony of the situation is that many citizens in the entire area moved to Alachua to escape just what they are considering.
And there is one other very important factor that must be addressed very strongly. PC has marketed their Envision Alachua Plan (a more apt name would be the City in the Swamp) as a development of ten thousand five hundred homes and fifteen million square feet of commercial space as a model development and a huge job creator. They are even called by some influential members of the community as a developer when, in fact, they don’t develop or create anything. If you just get down to brass tacks they are a landholder looking to sell the land for as much money as they can get, nothing more, nothing less. And it is absolutely astounding to see community leaders and even some elected officials fall for the hype hook, line and sinker. This even appears to includes a few elected leaders who actively supported the current comprehensive plan when it was considered and approved but, in all fairness, appearances in politics can be deceptive. They aren't always what they might seem.
There is, however, one Commissioner, Mike Byerly, who has actively stood for retention of the current plan, openly opposes the PC proposal and has given of himself to present the rationale for his position to any group desiring his input. He has taken much heat from PC supporters but is resolute in his support for our cause and we appreciate it. He has offered to debate with them on the plan in a public forum but they have refused.
So what should take place now that the issue has reached the level of deliberation by the Board of County Commissioners? Should they negotiate with PC, figuring that if they don’t the county may end up with an even worse situation than what is proposed, as one prominent commissioner has stated? Or should they deny the application and let PC figure out where it goes from here?
In my humble opinion, it is crystal clear that the application should be denied and sent back to the applicant. One has to look no further than the report filed by the Growth Management Department. Among other things, the applicant failed to show the need for the development where proposed nor the ability of the land in question to be acceptable due to its fragile environment with extensive wetlands and lack of infrastructure. The applicant submitted an incomplete application with many important substantive questions unanswered. The issue of impact on the area’s clean water, the county’s desire to maintain rural lifestyle options in the rural Eastside, and how the major public improvements necessary would be paid for were ignored.
If PC wishes to rework their application and resubmit, they are certainly entitled to do so, but they have also indicated in several venues that they could, if they wish, just go ahead and sell off the land and let developers build on five acre plots as is currently allowed. To that I’d say three things: first, there isn’t a huge market today for rural five acre lots with septic tanks and wells; second, much of the land in question will not allow development in that manner due to environmental constraints and, thirdly, PC has spent a goodly portion of time saying it is a great corporate citizen in Alachua County. To take the route of least resistance out of spite certainly wouldn’t endear the corporation to anyone in Florida. Remember, they still own six hundred thousand acres that they may want to sell one day. They really need to think about it.
As a member of the David team, I think it is important that we stay our course, always be ready to consider bits and pieces that certainly would make good sense to the community, but never be bullied into such a massive project due to fear. There is plenty of land already zoned for various levels of development in the county, it just doesn't happen to be land owned by PC. The winds in the community are clearly moving in our direction, so let’s just wait for now and see what comes next.
Immediate compromise? Absolutely not. Consideration of a reasonable proposal that protects the environment that God has given us and also doesn’t destroy the life of the folks who live the rural lifestyle? Yes, the door is always open to responsible change, but we’ll always approach any possibility with our eyes open.
Remember, we were given dominion over the earth with the charge that we use it wisely. No issue is a better example than this one of where we must do so.