by Whitey Markle, Conservation Chair of the Suwannee-St. Johns Sierra Club
Plum Creek Land Development Corporation has been in the process of testing the feasibility of developing a massive portion of Eastern Alachua County. By inviting key persons into this process, they have begun to develop a master plan, similar to the already-existing Alachua County Comprehensive Plan. Politicians, Plum Creek administrators and personnel, businesspeople, investors, educators, state and local government agency representatives, plus a plethora of interested organizations have been gathered over the last couple of years into what the corporation’s public relations specialists are calling the “Envision Alachua” process.
From the publicity that has come out of these charettes, very few definitive details have surfaced. An uninformed reader would probably conclude that the objectives of Plum Creek Corporation and the rosy plans they are espousing are harmless and probably healthy for the future of the county.
From the limited information the Suwannee/St. Johns Sierra Club has received on the issue, we have concluded several key facts.
Plum Creek now owns practically all of the land between the eastern shore of Newnan’s Lake and U.S. highway 301 and from State Road 26 on the north to S.R. 20 on the south (some 60,000 acres). Plum Creek plans to convert most of the land from agriculture (timber)/recreation (hunting) to an industrial/commercial complex along S.R. 20 and U.S. 301, and “conservation” land and eventually homes throughout the rest of the land area.
In Plum Creek’s 20-year vision, they have touted 36,000 new jobs, which will create a need for the 10,000 new homes they plan to build. Supposedly, the majority of these jobs will be high-paying “high tech” jobs as well as high-paying industrial jobs.
Plum Creek has also said that their plan is to develop economic growth in East Gainesville. This is simply not logical in view of the fact that the new development and “new jobs” will be across Newnan’s Lake from East Gainesville. What should happen (and could happen if the political will was there) would be to redevelop East Gainesville.
If the Plum Creek plan evolves as they propose, the vast woodlands and wetlands in eastern Alachua County will become sprawling clusters of housing, commerce, and strip malls as we see in many Florida counties. Good planning implementation would be to encourage the existing cities and towns to grow from within. Hawthorne should be encouraged to build the housing within its town limits to accommodate the projected employees who will work for the commercial/industrial cluster at U.S. 301 and S.R. 20 rather than developing a new massive “town” like Nacotee and The Villages in the midst of our most valuable resources.
Public leaders, in this time of economic downturn, tend to espouse optimistic pictures of their constituents’ economic future, whereas we environmentalists tend to be a bit more cynical when contemplating the days ahead. In fact, even Governor Scott has set out a plan to grow more business (and people) in Florida by proposing more tax incentives for new businesses coming into Florida. This philosophy echoes down to the smallest local governments. “More new better jobs will solve our economic woes.”
Most of us in the environmental community perceive increased population and business, along with the industry, commerce, and agriculture that come with that growth, as a severe problem for our natural environment. We also believe that increased population, etc. costs more, not less economically. More people and businesses require more services and infrastructure, not less. Historically, growth costs us all economically and ecologically.
The Florida Department of Environmental protection, just a few weeks ago, stated that Florida is within a 6 percent margin of being in a critical and chronic ground water situation. In other words: our state government has actually declared a critical condition for our ground water. Plum Creek obviously will lead to more surface water transfer to accommodate growth (more water for drinking, power generation, etc.). We feel that eventually (not far in the future) we have to face the water crisis and that moment will likely be too late. Just a look at the springs and creeks is quite convincing: Algae and vegetation have already invaded the waterways, and the water flow rates and levels are said to be 30–60 percent lower than those just 50 years ago. Add the fact that nitrogen and phosphate levels have increased by nearly the same acceleration rate, and one can easily see the critical state of our precious remaining water. Yet the government agencies that were put in place to protect our natural resources continue to issue permits as if there were no crisis at hand. The Consumptive Use Permit request by the Adena Springs Ranch in Ft. McCoy (Marion County just 30 miles southeast of the Plum Creek project) for 5.3 million gallons/day will likely be approved soon. This will mean less ground water and more nutrient pollution. Hopefully anticipated litigation by us “environmentalists” will close the floodgates and enforce regulation on nutrient pollution.
We here in Alachua County and the surrounding region are fortunate to have the natural resources still available to us, unlike our over-populated South Florida and east coast counterparts who have already overdrawn their share of the water. We should be able to say, “no” to more population.
In addition to the water crisis, there is the urban sprawl issue regarding the Plum Creek project. Alachua County, as well as all counties and cities in Florida worked for years developing the Comprehensive Plan. Since the early 1990s, all Florida Comprehensive plans have been approved and in place. These “Comp” plans include every aspect of each local government’s map for growth management. In the process, ALL entities were included by law. The “stakeholders” were not hand-picked as were those in the Plum Creek Envision Alachua process, and the elected governmental officials were the facilitators, not the developer’s employees.
In the Plum Creek envision process, the Suwannee-St. Johns Sierra Club was not invited to be at the table. Obviously, Plum Creek knew we would object to such a massive and ecologically illogical plan, thus, no invitation to “the table.” Business Magazine of North Central Florida stated in their June 2013 editorial that organizations as diverse as the Chamber of Commerce and the Sierra Club are on board with the Envision plan. When I questioned Scott Schroeder, Bizmag’s editor, he said that he could not explain how he reached that conclusion.
The Alachua County Comprehensive Plan has set aside much of the very area that Plum Creek has decided to develop into massive housing for conservation. This area is the watershed for Lochloosa Creek and Lake Lochloosa, which is classified an Outstanding Florida Waterway and must, by law, be afforded special environmental protection. Apparently the Plum Creek Envisioners have missed this key fact. Additionally, the underground water system that will be most affected by the development flows northwest from the project, so all of the toxic waste, household chemical, petroleum, and fertilizer runoff will seep eventually into the Murphree wellfield that provides Gainesville’s drinking water.
The area is part of the Ocala-Osceola wildlife corridor. If this plan goes forward, much less wildlife will be able to migrate naturally.
If the Plum Creek project is built out as presently touted, sprawling, one-level growth will occur between East Gainesville and Hawthorne and in between.
A drive down to southwest Marion County will demonstrate what out of control development will bring to Alachua County. What was once uninterrupted scrubland and forestland just 20 years ago is now endless housing, commercial strips, and their accompanying impervious pavement. If we expect to keep what natural resources are left, we must push hard for our government leadership to stop giving away those resources. We must reverse the present policies that take growth management and resource management away from the public. These policies can be corrected, but we, the public must re-establish our place in the policy-making arena.