Ed Dix has seen study after study about East Gainesville with a few improvements here and there but no major changes. Now, he’s a co-author of a recent study—along with 30 other members of the Envision Alachua Task Force—and he’s optimistic about the turnaround of much of eastern Alachua County. That turnaround will focus on creating manufacturing, agricultural and research jobs in the area.
“For the past 20 years, there would be a feel-good meeting every other year, but nothing like this ever happened before,” Dix says. “I feel a genuineness that will empower people, providing job training and employment.”
The difference between the Envision Alachua study and its predecessors is that the study’s sponsor, Plum Creek, owns a major portion of the land under study, and it’s in a position to implement the study’s recommendations.
Plum Creek is a real estate trust that not only is the largest land owner in Alachua County, holding nearly 15 percent of the county land, but also is the largest landowner in the United States.
Plum Creek created the task force so that it could create a consensus among a diverse group of people about the future use of its 65,000 acres of holdings in the county, says Todd Powell, the company’s senior director of real estate in Florida. The task force held six meetings, conducted the community workshops and sponsored four educational forums over the past year.
Plum Creek is eager to implement the task force’s recommendation that it focus its future development on 10,000 acres between Hawthorne and Windsor, putting its remaining land in the county into conservation, Powell says. This approach is better than developing the land with one home per acre, as the county’s comprehensive plan allows, he says. “Nobody wants to see thousands of five-acre lots,” Powell says.
The task force recommended gearing the first step of development toward creating jobs, with housing, stores and schools following later. “We have to create the jobs in order for people to be able to buy homes,” Dix says.
The University of Florida can play a big role in the eastern area of the county, says Pierce Jones, the director of the resource efficient communities and an advisor to Plum Creek. Jones says that UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences can use the area for research on increasing crop yields and developing new crops. “I see the possibility of IFAS developing a research park in the area,” he says. “We’re fortunate to have this land right under our nose.”
UF is already involved in agricultural development there, Jones notes. Alto Straughn, a farmer and Extension Service program specialist, is growing 700 acres’ worth of blueberries there—a crop that he developed with UF’s help.
“I can see other forms or agriculture, including pecans and corn, flourishing in the area,” Jones says.
Plum Creek plans to develop 1,800 acres along State Road 121, which it has annexed into the City of Gainesville, Powell says. In both the 10,000 acres in east county and the 1,800 acres in Gainesville, Plum Creek will set aside considerable land for preservation.
Plum Creek is forming a technical advisory committee, which will include members of various local, regional and state governmental agencies, to develop recommendations for implementing the Envision Alachua plan. The advisory group will work with the task force on what is known as a sector plan, a document outlining future land use in a coordinated fashion, Powell says. As part of the sector plan, Plum Creek would transfer its development rights from the conservation land to the land that would be developed.
“This is one of the largest conservation play in the state’s history,” Powell says. “It’s significant statewide.”