Plum Creek's sales pitch

Published: Sunday, September 15, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 13, 2013 at 4:59 p.m.

No matter what your thoughts are on its massive development plans, the Plum Creek Timber Company can't be accused of failing to listen.

In just over two years, the company has held 22 community meetings in which it gathered ideas and provided information about those plans to more than 2,000 people.

Plum Creek is Alachua County's largest private landowner, with about 65,000 acres here. It seeks to develop around 10,000 acres between Newnans Lake and Hawthorne, eventually building the equivalent of a small city.

A project of that magnitude would be expected to generate opposition in this environmentally minded area. But Plum Creek's process of soliciting input — dubbed Envision Alachua — has been building support in advance of a lengthy approval process expected to start late this year.

Plum Creek officials insist the process isn't just window dressing. They say their plan is being crafted based on community ideas, such as starting development along State Road 20 to bring economic benefits to both East Gainesville and Hawthorne.

Ideas include biotech research and development — possibly in conjunction with a new University of Florida agricultural campus — and manufacturing that takes advantage of proximity to U.S. 301 and a CSX railroad.

The aim is creating 30,000 jobs along with building 10,000 homes. While some environmental advocates are on board, the local Sierra Club opposes comprehensive plan amendments that allow further development of the properties.

"With the springs, rivers and lakes already in trouble, it would be wise to preserve what we have," club chairman Dave Wilson wrote in a recent column for The Sun.

Wilson contends the project would fill wetlands and degrade Lochloosa Creek. I took a tour last week to see Plum Creek's properties while hearing its sales pitch.

The project's big selling point is that Plum Creek would put a conservation easement on about 23,000 acres of its county land — bringing the total amount with such protections from development to about 46,000 acres.

While Plum Creek's Greg Galpin estimates wetlands comprise about one-quarter of its land, he said that actually "creates opportunity" to not have wall-to-wall homes.

I don't really buy that, but I also don't buy the notion that the project would devastate pristine habitat. The properties have been logged for decades and look like it, with rows and rows of straight slash and loblolly pines.

"Pristine is a perspective at this point in time," Galpin said.

One house, with a well and septic tank, could legally be built on every five acres of the land right now. A central plan for developing the land would allow for a better use of resources — if done right.

Plum Creek's Tim Jackson said some development is going to happen, so the community's choice is whether it's done in a smart or haphazard manner. While historically there has been a lot of the latter in Florida, Jackson said Plum Creek offers another possibility.

The state's "experience with growth is that it's only brought bad things," he said. "Growth can actually improve the quality of life for everybody."

It's a claim sure to be debated in an approval process that could last years and affect the area for decades to come.

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