Hatchett Creek project in jeopardy


Published: Thursday, November 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 31, 2007 at 7:22 p.m.

The Gainesville City Commission's approval of conditions limiting the number and location of homes in the Hatchet Creek subdivision Monday could cause the proposal to be revised or scrapped, the project's developer said Tuesday.

Robert Simensky, the New York-based developer behind the project, said no decision had yet been made about the future of the proposal, which would put an age-restricted subdivision around Ironwood Golf Course.

But he said restrictions on disturbing wetlands on the property, rather than issues of the project's compatibility with the nearby Gainesville Regional Airport, would make it "impossible" for the project to move forward.

After three nights of meetings, commissioners approved the project Monday with a set of 36 conditions by a 4-3 vote. Before voting in favor of the motion, Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan said the inability of developers to reach agreement with city staff on conditions a situation that led to proposals and counter-proposals during commission meetings on the topic was a sign that key concerns were not being met.

"In general, the city staff of the city of Gainesville is rather pro-development," Hanrahan said. "I believe they work pretty hard to bring forward projects that meet the city's land development code. They don't want a project that is restricting a regional success like our airport, they don't want a project that isn't really buildable with what they know about the lay of the land."

"I think they have given too much because they're under all sorts of pressure," Hanrahan said, noting efforts by some east Gainesville groups to promote the development.

Commissioners Ed Braddy, Rick Bryant and Scherwin Henry, who had supported loosening or eliminating several of the restrictions on the project, dissented.

Under the proposal approved by the city, the project could include up to 1,199 homes, an assisted-living facility and up to 200,000 square feet of commercial and office space on about 300 acres of the 500-acre property that is now zoned residential.

The commission's condition cut about 300 homes from the proposed project and would not change the land use on about 200 acres of industrial property on the eastern edge of the site that Simensky had planned to use as part of the project.

Most of the debate over Hatchet Creek has focused on the subdivision's proximity to Gainesville Regional Airport. Some city officials were concerned that the development could generate complaints from future residents and could imperil federal funding of the airport.

But Simensky focused on wetland restrictions, referred to as "Condition E," that prohibit nearly all impacts to wetlands and wetland buffers on the property except for road crossings.

"The most toxic of the poison pills is 'Condition E' because that makes it a physical impossibility to develop the property," Simensky said. "Its just tragic to have so many people engaged in something really positive and then impose a brand-new law made just special for this project that has no basis in reality."

The Hatchet Creek site, like many undeveloped properties in east Gainesville, contains a large number of wetlands. While experts hired by Simensky argued it would be better to "mitigate," or replace, some damaged wetlands, city officials and environmental advocates have argued that doing so could cause problems, particularly for water quality in Newnan's Lake and other areas fed by the site.

Dean Mimms, a city planner who helped evaluate the project, said Tuesday the restrictions were designed to protect wetlands on the property and water quality in the area.

Simensky said he was not sure yet whether he would keep the project going and try to change the conditions at future hearings.

The four city commissioners who approved the conditions Monday cited concerns about both the airport and environmental issues before casting their votes. Some also argued that allowing the project to move forward without the conditions would hurt, rather than help, the east side.

"Plan East Gainesville says specifically that no one project will turn east Gainesville into a prosperous place," Commissioner Jack Donovan said. "It is not a slap in anybody's face. We are waiting for a better plan which can certainly come at a later date. I think what we need to do is do it right. If that takes a little bit of time, it's worth it. It's not forever."

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