To the casual observer, it may seem that Gainesville has been buzzing about some controversial river named after a fruit for the past three years. As “Plum Creek” has become a buzzword in the local government and business communities, the issues surrounding the proposed development — and perhaps even the fact that Plum Creek is not a river at all, but a land-holding company — have become rather nebulous.
To comprehend the scope of the project and its impacts if implemented, we must go back to the basics.
At its core, Plum Creek development is an issue of property zoning and commercial development rights.
Alachua County’s growth, zoning and development is currently governed by a document known as the “Comprehensive Plan.”
Plum Creek wants to develop part of its private holdings, but the things they want to do to the property violate certain aspects of the Comprehensive Plan.
The solution presented to the Alachua County Commission is a sector plan. A sector plan is a specialized development plan for a certain part of a county or city. The sector plan drafted by Envision Alachua, the local arm of Plum Creek, would override the Comprehensive Plan and allow the company to develop the property in the way they want.
Look at it as a simple matter of bartering. Under the status quo, Plum Creek’s zoning gives it the ability to do intensive agriculture (such as growing crops) on its holdings. It is also allowed to place one house per five-acre plot. Since it’s a forestry company, it usually opts to use its land for tree-farming, considered lower-impact agriculture.
But that’s not always the case. According to the company’s website, “Plum Creek continually evaluates the best value outcomes for our
land. While most of our land is managed for timber, we consider other potential uses for our land portfolio. Frequently, we partner with others for conservation outcomes, sell land for recreational use and create community-minded land development projects.”
In the case of Alachua County, Plum Creek wants to trade its development rights to high- intensity agriculture and low-density housing in exchange for the ability to build several high-density development areas with mixed- used residential and employment centers. As part of the proposed deal, it would also put thousands of acres into “permanent conservation.”
Land that goes into conservation under Plum Creek’s stipulations will remain land that Plum Creek grows and harvests timber from.
Greg Galpin, Plum Creek’s senior manager of planning for Florida, put it this way: “We continue to be a working forest.”
Alachua County Commissioner Mike Byerly doesn’t have a problem with Plum Creek’s current forestry practices. Byerly, who founded the counter-group Stand By Our Plan, said what he opposes is the re-zoning that the company’s proposed developments would require.
“We’re not trying to run them out of the county,” he said. “We want them to stay here and grow trees,” he said. “We want them to play by the same rules every other developer has to play by.”
The significance of the sector plan
The sector plan, drawn up by Plum Creek and its local task force, spells out what all this development would look like.
Byerly calls the concept of a sector plan “a new beast.”
Up until a few years ago, counties were required to maintain comprehensive plans. Byerly said sector plans were an alternative that allowed planners to do some original thinking, cluster and transfer development rights from areas they can’t develop to areas they can develop – “which is allowed in the comprehensive plan, which is strongly encouraged in the comprehensive plan,” he said.
Tim Jackson, Plum Creek’s director of real estate for Florida, said the Plum Creek sector plan matters partly because it’s helpful in preventing urban sprawl and gives direction to a city’s expansion.
“It’s a new model for converting rural land to urban instead of just chipping away at the next 20 acres at the edge of the city,” he said.
April Salter, a Plum Creek spokeswoman, agreed. She noted that Florida has a history of rambling, incoherent developments as glimpsed in areas such as the suburbs of Orlando — which she noted used to be citrus groves.
“The key is that [sector plans] were put in place to escape the pattern of the past,” Salter said. “The history of our land is that we’ve converted from agricultural land to subdivisions without a lot of planning for the future.”
Byerly counters that the sector plan does nothing that the Comprehensive Plan isn’t already doing.
What would these developments look like exactly?
Jackson forecasts two types of mixed-use employment centers.
One would be light manufacturing and freight- oriented built along the Highway 301 / State Road 20 corridor near the CSX railway.
The other would be aimed at research and development — likely related to technology and in partnership with the university.
Jackson said no employers have committed to filling the proposed spaces yet, but because of the long timeline, he’s not concerned. He said it takes extra wooing to attract a company’s interest in settling with a Plum Creek development. “Companies making decisions like that take a long time,” he said. “And the fact that we don’t have [properly zoned] land yet makes it more difficult.”
The Plum Creek sector plan is pending approval by the Alachua County Commission — an issue that probably won’t be up for vote until mid-2015.
Plum Creek in the present: What Alachua County’s largest private landowner is doing with its land at the moment
On a steaming early August afternoon, James Rhue stood in a clearing among rows of pine trees, watching as a log-grappling excavator stacked and loaded pine logs onto a truck. Rhue is a logging crew supervisor with Pritchett Inc., a company that subcontracts for Plum Creek.
For Rhue, logging is a family business. His brother drove a hopper 100 yards away. His brother-in-law and son work on other crews within the company.
“It’s done me well,” he said. “I like being in the woods. I love being outside. This is what I’ve always done. I came straight out of high school, and I always knew what I wanted to do.”
Managing the timber forests, to Rhue, is one vein of conservation.
Greg Galpin, Plum Creek’s senior manager of planning for Florida, explains the practice of silviculture in a nutshell as “the science of growing and managing timber.”
Plots of trees of at various stages of growth spread across the property like a patchwork quilt. At one point along an access road, you can see the convergence of three ages of trees: three years old / about 4 feet tall;
8 years old / about 15 feet tall; 22 years old / towering above the rest of the forest.
Plum Creek has negotiated contracts with certain sawmills across the state. Large timber usually goes to Cross City. Eight-to-ten inch logs go to Lake City to make 2x4s.
Anything smaller goes to a pulp mill such as Georgia Pacific in Palatka. Pulp – cellulose – is significant because it’s actually used in cellphone and TV screens among other products.
Clear-cutting the land does happen. It rests two years before going back into production.
Forestry land owned by Plum Creek doesn’t only grow pine trees. Much of the land in Alachua County is shared with hunting clubs, evidenced by the occasional automatic feeder, tree stand and corn plot.
GRU runs utility lines through the property and maintains five wells on the land. Plum Creek lets UF plant test plots for various agriculture research projects. It also hosts a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission “recipient area” for the release of relocated gopher tortoises – marked by a black mesh fence about 2 feet high surrounding the perimeter of the about 500-acre plot that also has pine trees growing on it for harvest. It can hold about 17,000 tortoises per the density regulations.
“You have got to be an environmental steward,” Rhue said, “or the land won’t always be here.”