Project near prairie draws concern

Published: Thursday, January 24, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 24, 2008 at 6:23 a.m.

A project that would put 176 condominiums and townhouses near the edge of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park has attracted opposition from environmental advocates, who say it would mar views and disturb wildlife.

Gainesville Country Club is seeking a land-use change that would pave the way for development of a 25-acre site at the south end of its property. The club plans to rebuild its clubhouse and recreational facilities, allowing a site on one of its driving ranges to be developed with residential buildings up to three stories high.

While club officials say they'd take steps to reduce runoff and shield views, environmental advocates say the project will be an urban intrusion into the prairie's sweeping vistas.

"It's going to stick out like a huge sore thumb," said Kathy Cantwell, public lands chair for the local Sierra Club. "It would obliterate the feeling of wilderness when you're out there."

The Alachua County Commission was on the verge of approving the land-use change at its Jan. 8 meeting. But commissioners delayed the decision to allow project developers and environmental advocates to meet before considering the change again at their Feb. 12 meeting.

The project would create a net benefit for the environment, said Gerry Dedenbach of Causseaux, Hewett and Walpole, planners and engineers for the project. The club would build a new stormwater system to prevent polluted runoff, shield the development from the prairie with a buffer of trees and implement measures to minimize light pollution, he said.

"All these positives will certainly outweigh the fact that some people might be able to see an earth-tone building," he said.

The proposed comprehensive plan amendment would change the site's designation from agriculture to medium-density residential, allowing four to eight residential units per acre. The Florida Department of Community Affairs would need to OK the change before any development could proceed through the county's approval process.

Up to 200 units could be built on the site, but a recent version of the project has a combination of 176 townhouses and condominiums. Jim Weimer, biologist for the state park, said the project would mean hundreds of residents and their cars atop one of the highest points overlooking the prairie.

"This is not just another house with a couple of lights," he said. "It's a wall of lights."

Supporters say the project would update the club's 1960s-era facilities with more environmentally friendly features, while revitalizing the club for a new generation.

"We want to attract more young professionals and university people," said Al Alsobrook, vice president of the club's board of directors.

Established in 1921, the country club has been at its current location for almost 45 years. Nearly 240 homes surround an 18-hole golf course, and 70 percent of homeowners are club members, according to club officials.

A clubhouse is still partially heated by steam heat and has other environmentally obsolete features, resulting in utilities bills of about $15,000 per month, according to club officials.

They say a new clubhouse would have energy-efficient features and that the project would benefit the environment because the clubhouse, pool and tennis center currently allow pollutant nutrients to drain on the prairie. The project would move those facilities further from the prairie and build a stormwater system to capture runoff.

Dedenbach said development of the rest of the site as a residential project would pay for improvements. Residents of homes around the club have an average age of 70 and some would like to move into condos and townhouses that require less maintenance, he said.

The new residences would meet dark-sky requirements, he said, limiting light that can be seen from more than 50 feet away.

He said trees would shield the project from sight from the rest of the prairie, illustrating the point by conducting a test with a bucket truck. A bucket 55 feet in the air couldn't be seen from spots across the prairie, he said.

But Weimer and others say the project would create a visual intrusion for park visitors and wildlife.

He's concerned about light escaping from residents' windows and the headlights of their cars, saying trees would take time to grow and could be removed by residents who want better views of the prairie.

"The moment they start blocking their view, these people are going to go completely nuts," he said.

Alsobrook said the club is being environmentally responsible and should be allowed to develop its land.

"Do we have a right to see the prairie too?" he said.

Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 352-338-3176 or crabben@gville

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