Sensitive lands could be developed Development
Published: Saturday, January 28, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 28, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
A sliver of land between Williston Road and Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park is again the focus of debate - but this time conservationists say the stakes are bigger than whether a ropes course should be allowed there.
A proposal to change the 25-acre property's land-use designation has scuttled negotiations for Alachua County Forever to buy the land and could mean it gets developed with housing. Conservationists say a similar scenario could be played out with 18 additional properties bordering the prairie and other natural resources.
"These really special places are going to slip away from us and we're never going to get them back," said David Godfrey, who spearheaded the battle to fight the change and directs a Gainesville-based sea turtle advocacy group.
Alachua County commissioners last year denied a plan for a ropes course on the property, after heated debate from neighbors who said the land was an important buffer to the prairie. Planners are bringing the property back to the commission Feb. 14 because they say it is wrongly designated as preservation land due to a mapping error. A change to the rural/agricultural designation would open the property to housing or farming.
But Godfrey claims the Sierra Club's 1995 legal settlement with the county led to property and others bordering environmentally significant land to be protected. The Williston Road property, owned by Caroline Henderson and Constance Holloway, is a hardwood forest that is the only piece of land that can be developed between the road and the prairie.
It is among 54 properties comprising 802 acres that are designated preservation land despite the fact they have private ownership, said Ken Zeitner, the county's principal planner. Nineteen of those properties are undeveloped, he said.
Zeitner said the preservation designation's restrictions on virtually all development are inappropriate for private property. The properties already have other protections that would severely limit development without the designation, he said.
"We have a whole set of policies to protect those resources," he said.
But the county planning commission voted 6-1 last week to recommend against the change. Some planning commissioners said the definition of preservation is too narrow, suggesting it should be expanded to protect some privately owned land.
"If we change the definition of preservation, then we have no problem," said Planning Commissioner Harvey Budd, who voted against the change.
Alachua County Forever is now in negotiations to buy two of the 19 undeveloped preservation properties, said Ramesh Buch, the land-conservation program's manager. Those properties, totaling 30 acres, are part of negotiations to buy larger pieces of land from their owners, he said.
Buch acknowledged a land-use change could raise the price, but said that's just part of the acquisition process.
"Our intent is to purchase the properties at a fair price," he said.
Yet that can mean an owner looks elsewhere for higher value, as shown by the scuttled purchase of the Williston Road property. Co-owner Holloway said she'd still be interested in selling the property to the land trust for the right price.
The change would designate the property as rural/agricultural land. The new designation would allow one home per five acres, agricultural uses and farm-based businesses to be built there.
Planners said other regulations would mean just one or two homes would likely be allowed to be built, and agricultural businesses would be unlikely for the area. But some planning commissioners questioned why the change was proposed in the midst of Alachua County Forever's negotiations.
"Why don't we just leave it alone for a while?" Budd said. "Why did it have to come now?"
Principal planner Steve Lachnicht said the department intends to bring all the wrongly designated properties to the commission and this just happened to be first on the list. He said the designations were a simple mistake, due to overlapping markings on maps or other record-keeping issues.
But Godfrey insists the Williston property was purposefully listed as preservation as a result of legal action with the Sierra Club. "I have no doubt there were some mistakes made, but I think they're being made now," he said.
Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 352-338-3176 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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