Ron Cunningham: Envision this


Published: Sunday, July 29, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 27, 2012 at 7:15 p.m.

Archie Carr, the late, great UF ecologist, used to tell stories about Depression-era residents of Newnan's Lake who made ends meet by plucking Spanish moss from the oaks using long rods topped with barbed wire.

In his book "A Naturalist in Florida," Carr lamented, "the moss factories have all been shut down. I don't know why because moss hair was good stuffing — but maybe plastic hair is better."

Gathering moss was a sustainable form of economic development for its time. We can only imagine what might emerge as future drivers of opportunity on the eastern side of the county.

Likewise, it is difficult to envision what might eventually spring up amid the 17,000-acres of piney woods that Plum Creek owns east of Newnan's.

High-tech research parks. Alternative energy plantations. A new "old-fashion" railroad town. All or none of the above.

But it takes no imagination at all to envision what Plum Creek can already do with its land.

It can subdivide into one-unit-per-five-acre homesteads until the cows come home.

That's easily envisioned because it's the most common form of rural "sprawl." It's also incredibly wasteful of land, resources, energy and human capital.

And, again, Plum Creek — the largest land owner in America and in Alachua County — can do that right now if it wanted to.

So, you have to give the company credit for its "Envision Alachua" initiative, aimed at designing a 50-year development plan for the company's eastern Alachua County holdings.

And enlisting the community into the envisioning process was a stroke of genius. It begins the public buy-in process long before the first shovel of dirt is ever overturned.

One year into the process, Plum Creek's Envision Task Force seems to be hitting on all the right themes: Sustainable development that capitalizes on Gainesville's budding "innovation economy" while protecting the area's ecology and existing agriculture and forestry uses.

The stakes are huge. What happens to those Plum Creek lands in the coming decades will help shape the economic destiny of the entire east side of the county — the "poor" side — and the quality of life of the people who live there.

After decades of watching growth and development march steadily westward, the notion of an eastern economic renaissance — one that avoids the planning mistakes we've seen on the west side — is a seductive one.

Make no mistake. As Plum Creek goes so will go east Gainesville, Hawthorne, Rochelle and Windsor and, of course Newnan's itself. Already one of Florida's most distressed lakes, Newnan's health will improve or decline depending on the sort of development that springs up around its boggy shores.

So, it's very cool that this timber company has decided to go into the envisioning business.

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