Cynthia Barnett: We can save Glen Springs without Collier's cash

Published: Sunday, July 14, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, July 11, 2013 at 8:50 p.m.

Ever since my husband and I moved to the Florida Park neighborhood just north of Eighth Avenue when our children were 2 and 4, we have wondered about the most foreboding fence in Gainesville.

The fence surrounds a private residence near our neighborhood's entrance to Loblolly Woods Nature Park. You might have passed the wooden section along Eighth Avenue.

The part that fronts my neighborhood is eight feet tall, and comprised of a low concrete wall topped with black wrought-iron bars, those capped by iron spikes. At intervals are three enormous black gates, two decorated with snarling lion faces. All of this is covered with black privacy screen. Behind the screen grows a line of tall bamboo.

For all the years we've walked by, first pushing a stroller and now with older kids and our beagle-mix, guard dogs have raced out to meet us, barking and growling from behind the fence until we are out of sight.

When we learned Nathan Collier was our neighbor behind the lions, we could not have been more surprised. We were likewise surprised in May, when the Gainesville City Commission voted 4-3 to move forward to consider Collier's $1 million offer to buy five acres of the city-owned Loblolly park adjacent to his property, so that he can enlarge his personal refuge.

Others have already argued against the idea of Gainesville selling off public conservation lands. The city's own parks and recreation staff declined Collier's offer two years ago, with director Steven Phillips' erstwhile final answer that “the city does not want to create this kind of precedent for the exchange of land purchased for public conservation.”

Now, our City Commission seems on the brink of doing just that.

The most disturbing part of the Loblolly deal is the division it has created over the idea that proceeds from the sale of public parkland to a private citizen could be used to purchase Gainesville's Glen Springs.

The once-popular spring in the heart of the city near Ring Park has been lost to our generation, symbolizing our neglect of freshwaters nationally and statewide. I can think of no local water project more important than its restoration, part of a new water ethic led by the gateway city to Florida's world-class springs.

But holding out the spring's restoration as an incentive for selling part of the city's signature urban trail system has spawned a lot of cynicism. I have felt anguish to hear some of my neighbors express skepticism for Glen Springs when they would normally be rolling up their sleeves to work on it.

Pitting our neighborhoods and public parks against one another is not good for Gainesville. This deal doesn't really help nature elsewhere in the city. To the contrary, the precedent means your entrance to your favorite walk, or the place where your kids find their freedom in the woods, could be next.

But most importantly, it doesn't have to be this way. Gainesville, we can restore Glen Springs without Nathan Collier's cash — a fraction of the investment needed for a long-term project that will become a model for Florida and the nation. The city's Rotary Clubs, which for years have raised the money and volunteers to bring life-changing water projects to the Third World, are now also committed to changing our local water fortunes — and they have chosen Glen Springs as a focus of their attention. A community group called Friends Of Glen Springs — FROGS — could jump-start grants and fundraising.

I recently wrote about a project in Seattle called Growing Vine Street, in which citizens amassed $3 million to turn their street into an urban waterscape. In so doing, they pioneered Seattle's now well-known green streets concept before city government was ready or able to. Gainesville has just the vision and community will to pull off such a model for Glen Springs.

I hope you will join me in contacting city commissioners to ask them to oppose the sale of parkland we share in common to a single, well-connected citizen for his private and presumably barricaded enjoyment. We can restore Glen Springs without this corrosive deal, and I offer to write the first check.

It will not contain six zeroes. But it is a gesture of Gainesville's spirit across neighborhoods, rather than a foreboding fence that divides us.

Cynthia Barnett is a journalist and author of the water books “Mirage” and “Blue Revolution.” She takes her writing breaks in the Loblolly Woods.

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