A False Choice

Published: Saturday, January 14, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 13, 2006 at 11:22 p.m.
I have been called many things, but never a "phony-baloney anti-urban elitist." If I knew what it meant, I'd probably be hurt.
Sun Editorial Page Editor Ron Cunningham cobbled together a strawman with my name on it, then indignantly whacked it apart in a December 10 editorial titled "Anti-urban elitism" about on the county's land conservation program, Alachua County Forever (ACF.) He seems intent on creating more of a sense of controversy than actually exists; ACF is a wonderful success for our community.
Cunningham's hipshot involved how ACF money is spent. The editorial was based on his arbitrary distinction between rural and urban land preservation, and his belief that I have a bias against the latter. Nonsense.
Small neighborhood parks are critically important for urban residents. However, there are more effective and affordable ways to provide them than by raiding the county's scant land conservation program.
A new county policy requires that 20 percent of all new developments be permanently protected as open space. This will create far more neighborhood parks than we could dream of acquiring through ACF, without costing the public a penny. A prudent open space policy, along with adequate recreation funding, is the answer to Gainesville's need for city parks.
ACF isn't a slush fund for local government. The ballot language that the voters approved in 2000 specified that ACF funds were to be used to purchase "environmentally significant lands;" not to install fire hydrants, or patch potholes, or build city parks (as worthy as those things might be.) To help define "environmentally significant," and to try to insulate the process from political pressures, an objective scoring system was developed to evaluate each proposal. Guided by these evaluations, an appointed committee makes recommendations to the county commission. This process provides accountability, and assures the public that its money is being spent as promised.
Of the roughly 90 ACF proposals that have been evaluated to date, the two acquisitions that Cunningham champions in the editorial, the so-called "Wal-Mart" tract and the Cofrin tract, conspicuously scored dead last, yet will cost by far the most, per acre, to acquire. Scores of projects that rated better will ultimately be developed when the ACF money runs out.
My bias is against proposals that aren't a good value for the public. If it measures up, I'll support it, whether out in the swamps, or in downtown Gainesville.
Cunningham's gimmicky "us vs. them," "rural vs. urban," language obscures the real point. We must take the long view. As in South Florida before us, each of Alachua County's cities will eventually expand outward until they meet, in a seamless swath of subdivisions and strip malls, unless forward-thinking local governments preserve "urban-defining greenbelt" around population centers now, while the land is still affordable. This will be critical to the quality of life of all the county's residents, both urban and rural.
Every piece of land we're able to conserve will be surrounded by development, and readily accessible to thousands of citizens. Cunningham's statement that the 30-acre, $1.5 million Cofrin Park will be enjoyed by as many people as the 1,000-acre, $2.8 million Mill Creek Park "for generations to come," is downright naive.
Cunningham typically does a fine job outlining and advocating prudent environmental and growth management priniciples, but his reasoning (or perhaps his nerve) often fails when it's time to apply those principles locally, where there are consequences. Maybe The Sun just doesn't like the idea of preserving thousands of acres that might otherwise sprout subdivisions of new subscribers.
Whatever the case, Cunningham's choice between urban and rural land conservation is a false one. With a little foresight, we can have both.
Mike Byerly is an Alachua County Commissioner.

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