Board isn't swung by tree park plan

Published: Wednesday, January 26, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 25, 2005 at 10:29 p.m.
Convincing pleas by 20 speakers prompted the Alachua County Commission to deny a comprehensive land-use change for a Williston Road patch of woods buffering Paynes Prairie on Tuesday night.
Critics of the change said it would have enabled activities that could harm Paynes Prairie and destroy habitat that they say is increasingly rare in the county.
"It's a high-value natural resource," said David Godfrey, who lives near the parcel. "It ought to be in public ownership. It's an irreplaceable piece of Florida landscape."
Neither the property owner, Dink Henderson, nor the woman who sought the change for an "adventure park" would comment on the denial.
The issue was complicated by the zoning history of the tract, which is on Williston Road near S. Main Street.
It is currently zoned "preservation," a designation that is typically given only to public land and is highly restrictive in the uses allowed on it.
County Growth Management Director Rick Drummond said the tract is one of several pieces of privately owned land that were mistakenly designated "preservation" rather than "conservation" in 1991.
Drummond said the county will have to address the land-use of all of the parcels in the new comprehensive plan.
But Godfrey presented documents indicating that county commissioners in 1996 expressly gave the parcel a preservation designation to settle a lawsuit with the Sierra Club.
The change was sought by Ludavine Kail, who wanted to build a nine-acre adventure park that would feature cables strung throughout trees.
People in harnesses attached to the cables could then zip along through the canopy. Also included would be challenge obstacles similar to the ropes courses that are now popular for team-building exercises.
Such operations are popular in the Caribbean and Central and South America and are commonly called canopy tours. The company Kail represents operates parks in Martinique and Guadeloupe.
One speaker said the operation could be a benefit if run properly.
"I have been to Costa Rica and done the tree-top deal. I feel it could be a positive experience here if done correctly," said Jay Cooper, who lives near the site. "It could be a beautiful tour of the upper reaches of the tree canopy."
The issue Tuesday night dealt only with the proposed land-use change and not the operation that would have gone there.
Many of the opponents live in the nearby Colclough Hills and Kirkwood neighborhoods. They have said in e-mails to commissioners that the park would create traffic problems in the area.
Opponents said Tuesday the Sierra Club lawsuit gave commissioners a legal basis for denial. Assistant County Attorney David Schwartz told commissioners the decision must be based on sound reasoning.
"Denial cannot be arbitrary or capricious. You have to decide if there is a rational basis for your decision," Schwartz said. "The information we have is that the preservation designation got there by accident. You need more than 'oops' as a basis for keeping it preservation."
Several commissioners said the land is best suited as a buffer for Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park and recommended attempts be made to bring it under public ownership through the Alachua County Forever or other land-acquisition efforts.
The vote was 4-1 with Commissioner Lee Pinkoson dissenting. Pinkoson said he cast his vote because he believes all private land with a preservation land-use should be addressed at one time.

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