The entire process began over five years ago with the initiation of the Envision Alachua Plan, a vague vision dreamed up by Plum Creek Timber (now part of Weyerhaueser) and the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce. A series of dog and pony shows were put on for the public and general presentations were made, not questions answered, by personnel representing or employed by Plum Creek. Attendees were broken out into groups to discuss what they would like to see, but not in definitive terms just vague categories, like better roads, more jobs, etc. Then using their hand picked citizens advisory group, they crafted a PR delight, fancy words and pictures which looked good but had no relationship to true reality in light of the local terrain and infrastructure, or lack thereof.
After all was said and done, the rezoning application, desiring to change raw, low elevation and wet timberland into the densest multi-use zoning category available, was voted down 3-2 by the County Commission after a serious of lengthy and healthy public hearings. Had the applicant conducted meetings with those facing the adverse impact of their plans at the outset of the project and considered those issues, they would have been much more likely to have been successful, albeit at a significantly smaller scale. But the big company, flexing its muscle and money, had no intention of compromise; they were going to push their agenda come "hell or high water", something for which they might get their wish for in the reality of the physical layout. It was clear that their plan was set in concrete from the beginning and had not local citizens raised their voices with a group named Stand By Our Plan and others of like opinion, the plan would have likely sailed through.
The applicant then pulled the application, indicating they would come back the following year, 2016, with a new proposal which would really just be more of the same. And they were counting on a change of at least one elected county commissioner to switch the vote from 3-2 against to 3-2 for in the 2016 Commission election. But a funny thing happened along the way, long time Commissioner Mike Byerly, the strongest opponent, fended off a huge campaign war chest of the Plum Creek candidate of choice, largely funded by out of state sources, and was reelected.
So then Plum Creek, now Weyerhaueser, opted for a different tactic. They negotiated an arrangement with the City of Hawthorne and its Mayor, Matt Surrency, to seek voluntary annexation of land adjacent to the city. After a number of hearings it was accomplished, and now plans are beginning to come out regarding what the 1200 annexed acres will be used for. It's not a surprise, but it certainly doesn't appear to be what the city initially showcased. But then again, most of the land was city zoned for multi-use which means pretty much anything goes.
So what do the people in the city and surrounding areas think? Well, it's really hard to gauge the city residents, for attendance at commission meetings are usually poorly attended, excepting the significant attendance by out-of-city area residents. But except for the three minute statements allowed in public hearings, all of the preparatory workshops and such were totally conducted by those who have a personal stake in the outcome, be they city officials, those under retainer to the city or the applicant. Perhaps it's because no one inside the city is interested but an effort should have been made to include some who are opposed to the process, if buy in was desired. Frankly, the general consensus of the unincorporated residents is generally they don't care about their neighbors or what they think.
So now, to the final point. The entire process since its beginning by Plum Creek has been sold, or at least attempted to be sold, by the words jobs, jobs and more jobs. They put that word out like low hanging fruit because they knew of the high unemployment in the area and the general low wage rate in rural Florida. They talked about large plants and training programs with the priority being for those already in the area. But once again, with the proposal that the city is currently considering, the fallacy of that hope is clear.
This week the city announced its intention to create another Villages project, something on a much smaller scale than the burgeoning and sprawling Villages communities to our south. This would mean very densely developed housing of various scales which normally attract retirees from the north. So other than the temporary construction work involved, the long term job market will be for low paying jobs like retail, lawn maintenance, house cleaning and such. High skilled jobs are a myth, unless a new medical facility comes to town to support an aging population base.
And where will it likely go from here. Well, my crystal ball tells me that it won't be too many years later that Weyerhaueser will try to pull another annexation through the city, one that won't be quite as easy since local residents in the unincorporated area will have to be considered, but politics being what it is they'll probably muscle it through with the help of a compliant state legislature. The result would be the total degradation of the area, population sprawl, pollution, water shortages and massive tax increases. And since most in the area are not of wealthy means, they will ultimately be dispossessed of their land, legally of course, by a government that once again is in business to support itself. But it won't stop there, because the local power brokers as things grow exponentially, will no longer be the power brokers when new residents get involved and what their community to be like where they came from. And the local flavor and its individuality will be gone forever.
My crystal ball could be wrong and I sincerely hope it is, but this type of thing has been the ruination of most of Florida to our south and if it continues in favor, there will be nothing left of the Old Florida that has been so loved by many for generations. And the Sunshine State will be just another wall to wall boring suburb connecting cities that look alike and can only be separated in the mind by a city limit sign. Think of it as New York South, only a lot hotter. How sad.