Last night the final public hearing went underway before the Alachua County Commission decides on whether or not to transmit the proposal to the State of Florida where approval is almost a certainty. Following a presentation by both the county staff which recommended not forwarding it, the applicant, Plum Creek Timber, a tree farming company and real estate trust, also presented their final proposal. This issue has been gaining attention and has been under varying degrees of evaluation since 2013 and the battle lines are drawn. The business community, particularly the large business and the Chamber of Commerce, the University of Florida, charities that have benefited from Plum Creek donations and other larger scale interests have sided with the company in this fight.
On the other side of the argument are the majority of the average Joes, sprinkled with rural dwellers, city dwellers, retired folks, even many small business professionals who realize that one of the most attractive things about Alachua County is its mix of urban, suburban and rural in one jurisdictional area. And just a few years ago the county developed a Comprehensive Plan which was drawn up by a group of leaders and citizens from all segments who came to a negotiated position of support. Now the county is expected to give that up to a corporation simply because it wants to convert its land to another use for its own benefit. They are not a developer but a landowner, clearly wanting to capitalize on its large landholding regardless of its impact on the area. Following is a rundown on how the meeting went last night. I offer it as an example of how when the public gets involved it can make a difference. And while we certainly don't know what the outcome will be, it certainly won't be for lack of interest by local residents. The following was also posted on Facebook this morning.
It was clearly a David and Goliath night at Eastside High last night. Plum Creek is a superb PR machine and Tim Jackson of course has a gift for public speaking. But the problem is the argument they make, when you look at it honestly, has holes resembling a large chunk of Swiss cheese. The company as a real estate investment trust is first and foremost a land speculator. They bought the cheapest, lowest and wettest land in the county and turned a beautiful forested area into a tree farm which no longer resembles anything of Florida's nature, but that was all legal. But what they really wanted was something different. Knowing that they really wanted to move the real estate at some point, they worked hard with the PR machine to convince people that should have known better that this low, wet, floodplain land bought on the cheap could be turned into a City in the Swamp and make them millions. It's their right to do that as well, even if it is a bad decision. And they banked on wearing down the County Commission over time by refusing to negotiate, turning the community components against each other while all the time calling themselves a good neighbor. But now we find that the general public has clearly caught on and the natural allies of Plum Creek, principally big business, big education, and lots of lawyers and real estate types, find themselves in the minority in our community.
Look, we get it and yes, there are some areas in the zone that could be developed reasonably, particularly over on the 301 corridor where the rail and highway network is sound. Even then it needs to be on a scale that will not destroy our natural ambiance and beauty, but instead should clearly blend in with good buffers and protection for those abutting the property that have no say in anything, but just want to live peacefully. And as you head westward from 301, watch the lay of the land get lower and wetter as you move toward Windsor. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that this doesn't make sense. So what needs to be done is just what Dr. Denslow said in his remarks for Plum Creek: negotiations, because there have been none.
Instead of pulling their application last year when the tea leaves were looking bad for PC and actually changing the plan to something palatable, they opted for political actions while also using Hawthorne as a pawn. I agree there are things that can be done adjacent to Hawthorne, but when the abutting neighbors will bear the brunt of the problems, which always come, it needs to be sensitive to them as well, not just jammed down their throat, and that's the reason why the county should have challenged them at that time.
And in the case of the other land that they shouldn't develop? Perhaps Commissioner Hutchinson's plan could solve it, but PC needs to be willing to make a valid commitment to work with him before, not after, a vote is taken on any of this overreach. And the county should not approve and forward anything now when all it will do is take away the "ace in the hole" which they still hold today. Once that's given up, we are at their mercy and we expect county officials to stand up for what they helped create, the Comprehensive Plan. And we still have no idea what the coming merger between Plum Creek and Weyerhaueser will mean to our future.
One last comment and this one is dicey. For attorney David Coffey to bring up the racism term was, in this writer's opinion, an insult to all who decided to live in the Windsor area because they were informed that it was a protected area when it was bought. These are all good people, people who have worked hard all their life and paid their taxes and many are now either retired or approaching that state of life. While Mr. Coffey worries about those in poverty, he needs to add to that those who are either on fixed income or closing in on it with the possibility that now the very home they worked hard for will be priced out from under them by new property tax rates, fancy fees and other factors which could have been avoided with proper planning. Gee, isn't that what the comprehensive plan was all about when it was reached with a broad consensus?
You wonder why so many Americans today are so fed up with government and the crony-capitalist connection? You wonder why American politics are so topsy-turvy this year? This, my friends, is just one example of the reason. Pay attention, Commissioners and do the right thing. And thanks to Commissioners Byerly and Cornell for standing strong all along. And, lastly, thanks to Commissioners Chestnut and Hutchinson for taking time to meet with me personally last week and to all the the Commissioners for receiving my cost concerns as well, including Commissioner Pinkoson for responding to my comments. God bless you all, Gentlemen, and we'll see you again on Thursday night, Good Lord willing and if the creek doesn't rise. I guess the Saga of the City in the Swamp will continue for awhile.
The picture below shows the high school auditorium at the start of the hearing. This in a county where government meetings usually draw fairly small audiences. This is a generational issue in Alachua County. If you live nearby and have concerns, be there on Thursday evening beginning at 5 when those who requested to speak on Tuesday continue on the floor. Power to the people, my friends.