A boon for eastern Alachua County?
Plum Creek says its development plan would help address economic disparities on east side
Published: Friday, December 27, 2013 at 5:12 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, December 27, 2013 at 9:18 p.m.
Correction: No current Sierra Club members are represented on the Envision Alachua task force convened by Plum Creek to help steer future plans for its land. A Saturday article said otherwise.
To learn more
Sector plan comprehensive plan amendment application:
More information about Plum Creek's planning process:
The Plum Creek Timber Company has spent 2½ years holding 340 workshops and one-on-one meetings with nearly 1,700 people, including interested residents, a 31-member task force, government regulators and a cadre of consultants for advice and ideas on what to do with its nearly 65,000 acres of timberland in Alachua County.
All that preparation culminated in a long-term master plan the company submitted to the county Dec. 12 that calls for developing portions of the land with a balance of housing and commercial space big enough to lure large employers while putting large swaths of land in conservation with Plum Creek retaining timber rights.
The company is pitching the development portion of the plan as a way to address economic disparities on the east side of the county, while the conservation land would remove the ability to build one home with well and septic tank per every 5 acres, as allowed in the current agricultural land use.
The portions slated for development cover 11,000 acres of the 17,000-acre Windsor tract between Newnan's Lake and Hawthorne with a maximum of 15.5 million square feet of commercial space and 10,500 homes. The commercial space includes 8 million square feet for advanced manufacturing, 6 million square feet for research and development, office and institutional uses and 1.5 million square feet of retail and service space.
At least 30 percent of the developed areas must remain open space in the plan, leaving about 7,500 acres available for development.
The developed acreage would be reduced further if Plum Creek is allowed to concentrate homes and businesses over a smaller area.
The company is eyeing two areas in particular that make the most sense for development because of their proximity to Gainesville and Hawthorne with access to State Road 20.
However, developing the portion closest to Gainesville would affect wetlands, which is not currently allowed under the comp plan.
Tim Jackson, director of real estate for Plum Creek, said they could build out the maximum developed space without touching the 1,700 acres of wetlands within the 11,000 acres, but Plum Creek is asking to concentrate the development in smaller areas while affecting a few wetlands in the southern portions in return for greater wetlands protections on land to the north.
Jackson pointed out the areas on a poster-sized map during a Dec. 19 press briefing.
"We're suggesting that you get the county, from a policy perspective, to look at a better environmental solution than just protecting every wetland, primarily for the purpose of accommodating a job center down here."
The development would still conform to state and federal environmental standards that do not address wetlands of less than a half-acre.
The plan would also put about 23,000 acres in conservation, preventing future development while Plum Creek keeps the timber rights, in addition to the 24,000 acres of its land already in conservation.
The master plan was submitted as an amendment to the county's comprehensive land use plan as a rarely used sector plan available in Florida for properties of at least 15,000 acres with a 50-year planning outlook compared to the usual 20-year horizon.
The master plan covers the 60,136 acres that Plum Creek owns in the unincorporated county and not the nearly 5,000 acres it owns in the city limits of Gainesville and Hawthorne.
While the sector plan lays out the broad parameters for land uses, development would also require county approval of detailed specific area plans that would include the location of buildings and units per acre, among other criteria, for areas of at least 1,000 acres.
Although it is not stipulated in the plan, Plum Creek intends to serve as the master developer, hiring other developers and builders to handle construction, Jackson said.
The amendment faces scrutiny by county staff, the county planning commission and state regulators, with the County Commission having final say on approval.
Missy Daniels, senior planner for the county, said county staff from growth management, public works, fire/rescue and environmental protection will analyze the plan to see if it is consistent with the county's comp plan and how development would affect the environment, roads, adjacent lands and historic resources such as a cemetery on the property.
Staff will then recommend that the plan be approved or denied as is or recommend changes before sending it to the planning commission, an appointed board of volunteers that then makes a recommendation to the County Commission.
That could take a few months depending on whether staff requests more information and how long it takes Plum Creek to answer, Daniels said.
"It's obviously the biggest thing we've ever reviewed," she said.
Once the planning commission makes its recommendation, the County Commission votes on whether to send the plan to the state as is or to propose changes. From there, the plan goes to the state Department of Economic Opportunity, which has 60 days to review it and gather comment from other state agencies such as the Department of Transportation and Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Once the state issues any comments, recommendations or challenges to the plan, county staff has 180 days to take it to the County Commission for a final adoption hearing.
Plum Creek officials are hoping for approval by the end of 2014.
The company has sent letters about the plan to the owners of 1,900 properties within a quarter mile of its land and will be required to do so again before the planning commission hearing. Plum Creek also hired 10 people to install 420 road signs as notices of the proposed changes along 85 miles of roads fronting its property.
Daniels said she has already gotten a ton of phone calls since notices were posted, mostly from hunters wondering if they will be able to continue hunting on the land slated for conservation.
Greg Galpin, Plum Creek's senior manager of planning, said hunting leases will not be affected.
A couple of organizations weighed in with concerns about environmental issues prior to the plan being submitted.
The Suwannee St. Johns Group of the Sierra Club has come out in opposition to the plan over concerns about water issues, loss of wildlife habitat and sprawl.
In a letter to the editor published in The Sun on Nov. 30, club representatives wrote that the quiet rural character of nearby rural clusters "will be lost to traffic, sprawl, noise and destruction of wetlands."
The letter also expressed concern that a proposed conservation corridor that would meander through the development is only a half-mile wide on each side of Lochloosa Creek.
The county's Land Conservation Board, also an appointed advisory board of volunteers, wrote a letter to county commissioners dated Dec. 6 expressing concern that the lands designated for conservation do "not adequately protect ecological connectivity along Lochloosa Creek" and asks that the commission support additional conservation land that connects wildlife corridors.
The letter also says that much of the conservation land in the plan is already under decades-old conservation easements and should not be included as mitigation against development, and that conservation land used for "industrial silviculture" — or tree farming — should not be traded to fulfill the county comp plan's 50 percent strategic ecosystem set-aside requirement.
Environmental groups were represented on the task force that Plum Creek convened to steer the plan, including members of The Nature Conservancy and Audubon Florida.
Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, who was not a member of the task force, weighed in at the Dec. 19 press briefing.
"There are some people whose desire is to stop growth and stop development and stop more people from being here. We don't believe as an organization that that's a practicable objective," he said.
"The more green that you can get left in the system at the end in exchange for getting some kind of smaller, more condensed development from our point of view is a better plan and a better way to approach things."
He said Audubon Florida was not ready to take a stand on the plan's treatment of wetlands but has flagged the issue for additional discussion. He said that restoring some wetlands while conceding others can provide a greater ecological lift than a "no net loss" approach.
"I don't think that Alachua (County's) current law gets you to the right place, but I'm not sure the recommended change gets you there either," Draper said.
In response to environmental concerns, Plum Creek is proposing that:
-- Development restricts water use with a goal of using 50 percent less water compared to conventional uses. That would be achieved by prohibiting the use of potable water on lawns, using Florida-friendly landscaping, prohibiting wells and septic tanks, using high-efficiency plumbing and reusing treated wastewater.
The development would include its own water and sewer plants.
-- Development is compact to shorten car trips and promotes walking and bicycle use.
-- One or more projects to improve water quality in Lake Lochloosa will be identified before submitting the first detailed specific area plan. Jackson said they are looking at creating a treatment pond that would filter nutrients in Lochloosa Creek.
The issue of jobs
For the developed land in the plan — referred to as employment-oriented mixed use — Plum Creek is proposing to balance commercial and residential space by creating three jobs per household. If the ratio is not reached in one detailed specific area plan, the next DSAP would have to make up for it. If the ratio drops below two jobs per household, approval of the next DSAP would be suspended to develop a remedial plan.
The ratio assumes that four people are employed for every 1,000 square feet of research and development/office/commercial space and 1.2 people for every 1,000 square feet of manufacturing space.
Jackson said the idea behind the jobs ratio is to provide an incentive for people to work in the Plum Creek development and live in nearby east Gainesville and Hawthorne.
"There's a deficit of housing and so where would that housing go? Hopefully as redevelopment infill in Hawthorne and east Gainesville," he said.
Consultants hired by Plum Creek estimate that the commercial space will create between 18,000 and 24,000 jobs in the research and development/office/institutional space over 50 years and 6,000 to 12,000 advanced manufacturing jobs.
Adrian Taylor, a task force member and vice president of Innovation Gainesville for the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce, said the job estimates are "very doable" because of demand that is already here and strategic advantages that the area has in fields such as information technology, advanced manufacturing, logistics and agrisciences.
The consultants have been interviewing University of Florida deans and professors to see what companies can benefit from UF research and what relationships they already have so Plum Creek can partner with the chamber, UF and Santa Fe College to market the area to those companies.
Plum Creek would provide larger tracts of land for big employers than what is currently available, Taylor said.
"Now we're in the ballgame on the national and international stage where we're not now," he said.
Plum Creek officials have regularly touted the economic potential of its land closest to Hawthorne for its proximity to a CSX rail line and U.S. 301 between Jacksonville and Tampa.
"This makes the land available," Jackson said. "If the land isn't available, the jobs aren't coming. If the jobs don't come, you still get the conservation land and you don't consume the land for manufacturing."
While the plan is designed for a 50-year buildout, Plum Creek is also sensitive to calls that it do something right away after stirring optimism among its advocates in east Gainesville and Hawthorne.
To that end, Plum Creek has teamed with Santa Fe College to see how it can expand community programs SF already provides in east Gainesville, said Karen Cole-Smith, executive director of community outreach and east Gainesville instruction for SF College.
The college will also start offering community and continuing education courses in Hawthorne in January and is working with Hawthorne Middle/High School on an agreement to make the computer lab available for online courses in time for the spring B session, said Dug Jones, Santa Fe associate vice president of economic development.
Jones said the idea is to get people in the habit of taking classes and getting registered and enrolled with an eye toward future job training.
Other provisions of the plan include:
-- Within the developed area, a majority of housing will be within a half-mile of employment uses and a majority of jobs will be within a half-mile of future transit access to east Gainesville or Hawthorne.
-- 2,300 acres are designated for agricultural land in the Windsor tract. The land is already zoned agricultural, which would allow one home per five acres. The proposal would further limit that to one home per 40 acres.
Jackson said the idea for the agricultural land is to hopefully attach it to a large agriscience business or a research campus of the UF Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences in the employment area.
-- 340 acres of rural land would surround the town of Windsor to act as a buffer to development in response to concerns from residents who want to preserve the rural nature of the community. In addition, the employment area would include its own internal street network to discourage travel on County Road 234 through Windsor.
-- "Edges" would be protected around rural clusters such as Campville and Grove Park so that adjacent uses are the same or would include a 100-foot natural barrier. Conservation land in public ownership would be surrounded by a 50-foot natural barrier.
-- Within the 1,500-acre Hawthorne Urban Reserve Area — designated for future annexation in the county comp plan — Plum Creek's plan calls for residential uses adjacent to nearby residential areas south of State Road 20 and industrial use near adjacent industrial land to the north. Development there would also likely hook into Hawthorne water and sewer service.
-- According to company projections, existing schools could handle 80 percent of the likely population growth in the developed area.