City considers Collier's offer to buy piece of Loblolly park

Published: Tuesday, May 14, 2013 at 6:30 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, May 14, 2013 at 6:30 p.m.

Gainesville apartment mogul Nathan Collier's $1 million offer to buy a piece of Loblolly Woods Nature Park behind his home goes to the City Commission on Thursday.

Collier seeks to purchase 5.7 acres located north of Northwest Eighth Avenue and a short distance west of Northwest 22nd Terrace.

Collier said he wants the property as a buffer behind his homestead, which is wrapped by a tall wood fence and includes two houses.

"I just desire privacy and the price offered is 95 percent a gift to the city I love and 5 percent market value," Collier said.

The offer has set off public debate. In emails to the City Commission and letters to the editor, proponents say the city would only give up a small part of a more than 60-acre nature park and see a windfall that could generate money to purchase other environmentally sensitive properties, including the possible acquisition of Glen Springs from the Elks Lodge.

Opponents say the sale would set a negative precedent and send the signal that the city is willing to sell off conservation land and areas of the protected Hogtown Greenway once a high-dollar offer comes in.

The Nature Centers Commission, a city advisory board focused on nature park properties, formally came out against the sale back in January.

"Lands acquired for conservation purposes are presented to the public as being protected in perpetuity," Pearse Hayes, the commission chair, wrote in a Jan. 9 letter. "The citizens of Gainesville have voted on multiple occasions for greater natural resource protection and regulations. We do not agree with considering the sale of conservation land without first having scientific reason for doing so."

In its letter, the advisory board noted that the City Commission has not yet adopted a formal policy setting guidelines for surplusing and selling off conservation properties. Hayes said Tuesday that the Nature Centers Commission has not changed its stance since the January statement of opposition.

The tract that Collier seeks to purchase was donated to the city in 1980, Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Director Steve Phillips said.

Collier first expressed an interest in acquisition in early 2011.

In summer 2011, the City Commission began placing nature parks and conservation properties on a registry of protected lands. Inclusion on the registry, which voters required the city to establish in a 2009 referendum, means a property may not be sold or have its land use changed without voter approval.

Phillips said the city has not yet placed the Loblolly property on the registry because of Collier's lingering offer.

When the City Commission's Recreation, Cultural Affairs & Public Works Committee discussed the issue last November, staff recommended against selling the property. The discussion is now headed to the full City Commission with no committee recommendation for or against. Staff's recommendation is that, if the commission decides to sell, the revenues go to purchase other environmentally sensitive properties.

Phillips said that, under the Comprehensive Plan, the money has to go toward some recreation expenditure.

There has been some community lobbying to make the sale and use the money to attempt to buy Glen Springs, a freshwater spring off Glen Springs Road in the city that served as Gainesville's segregation-era swimming hole.

Commissioners Susan Bottcher and Todd Chase have advocated separate consideration of the Collier offer and the potential pursuit of Glen Springs. Chase said that, should the sale go through, the money generated should go toward recreation but not be earmarked in advance for a specific project.

No final decision will be made Thursday. To move a potential sale ahead, the City Commission would have to declare the tract surplus and then receive bids from any interested buyer. As it stands, no one but Collier has expressed an interest publicly.

Commissioners could attach conditions to any sale, including a requirement for the property to remain in conservation.

The 5.7-acre tract currently has a conservation zoning designation, which would allow one home to be built. Collier said he has no plans to build on the land, which includes an area of wetlands, or apply for a zoning change.

"I have absolutely no intention of ever asking for a (zoning) change and I hope it stays in my family for generations," Collier said.

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