County staff presents denial recommendation at first Plum Creek town hall meeting

Standing on stage in the Hawthorne High School auditorium, Steven Lachnicht held up a three-ring binder about six inches thick.

“This is the one we’ve analyzed,” he said. “It’s as heavy as it looks.”

At a Sept. 2 public hearing, Lachnicht, director of the Alachua County Growth and Planning Department, announced that county staff released its recommendation to deny Plum Creek’s sector plan application. He said the recommendation came after staff reviewed the lengthy document in the binder.

The general-overview-themed town hall meeting was the first in a series of four, hosted by the county to take residents’ input regarding the far-reaching proposed development project.

Previously, the only public meetings on the topic had been hosted by the applicant, forestry company Plum Creek, and its local community outreach arm, Envision Alachua.

Before kicking off the meeting, County Commission Chairman Lee Pinkoson gave participants a few instructions.

“The key to all this is to know that this can be an emotional issue, and we want to have as civil debate as possible,” he said. “Please no jeering, no moaning, no groaning…Don’t laugh.”

About 40 Alachua County residents came forward to vocalize opinions and ask questions about the project. Their questions were written down and submitted to county staff for review. After the public hearing series, the questions will be answered cumulatively in a written document.

Jeff Knee, a member of the Gainesville Development Review Board, suggested that the county is simply taken aback by the unusual size of Plum Creek’s proposal.

“We’re used to seeing development proposals on a much smaller scale,” he said. “I don’t think any of us are used to seeing huge proposals like this. I think that if UF were establishing itself today as a land-grant university…you’d probably reject it…You wouldn’t think about how it would help.”

Hawthorne City Manager Ellen Vause said that the City of Hawthorne voted unanimously to support Plum Creek’s master plan, and she asked the county to reconsider its recommendation. She said the development plan promises to help restore commerce the city lost when I-75 was built, which pulled traffic away from State Road 20 — Hawthorne’s main corridor.

But Windsor resident Bonnie Barnes said the development would shatter a sense of rural peace that she moved from Miami 20 years ago to find.

“We are grateful for the gifts we enjoy here: walks down roads without excess traffic…the air we breathe is clean,” she said.

She called Plum Creek’s plan “inappropriate development” and said it would cause pollution to drain into Newnan’s lake, impacting the Windsor area.

Melrose resident Jill McGuire also spoke against Plum Creek because she said it would interrupt a preferred way of life.

“We know our little towns are backward. We like it that way,” she said. “It’s hard to explain that to people.”

She said that if the development happens on the scale that it’s slated for, “all of that will go away.”

As reasons for the denial recommendation, Lachnicht cited lack of needed urban infrastructure, incompatibility of the proposed urban uses with surrounding rural areas, and lack of a clear plan for providing the required new public facilities to support the developments.

He also said Plum Creek’s proposal is inconsistent with the county’s comprehensive plan, which promotes urban development within a designated urban cluster.

To put the amount of development Plum Creek is trying to bring into perspective, Lachnicht noted that in the past 20 years, the county has approved three million square feet of non-residential development. Plum Creek is proposing a total 15.5 million square feet of non-residential development in its application.

He said the timeline for the county’s final decision — which will climax in a County Commission vote — is impossible to pinpoint at the moment. He said it would not happen sooner than spring of 2015.

The next workshops in the series will run as follows:

  • Sept. 4, 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at Eastside High School auditorium (1201 SE 43rd St., East Gainesville)
    Topic: General Overview
  • Sept. 16, 5 p.m. at Alachua County Administration Building (12 SE 1st St., Second Floor, Room 209, downtown Gainesville)
    Topic: Natural Resources
  • Sept. 22, 5 p.m. at Alachua County Administration Building (12 SE 1st St., Second Floor, Room 209, downtown Gainesville)
    Topic: Transportation/Economic Development

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