Byerly, others form group that's wary of Plum Creek
Published: Friday, April 4, 2014 at 4:31 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 4, 2014 at 9:23 p.m.
Residents concerned about Plum Creek timber company's Envision Alachua plan, including County Commissioner Mike Byerly, have formed an association that aims to inform the public about how Plum Creek's proposal and the Alachua County Comprehensive Plan differ.
The local association, Stand By Our Plan, launched in January with a website, http://standbyourplan.org.
More than 100 people have already submitted forms asking how they can help, said organizing member Scott Camil, who is also the political chair of the Suwannee-St. Johns Group Sierra Club Executive Committee.
"You can't really do both. You can't support the comprehensive plan and support the Plum Creek plan," Camil said. "It's not that we're anti-Plum Creek. We're pro-environment and we are pro our comprehensive plan."
Plum Creek has submitted a sector plan application to the county that essentially proposes a long-term master plan for around 60,000 acres of property it owns in eastern Alachua County and asks for dozens of related comprehensive plan amendments, some of which Plum Creek representatives say exceed the comprehensive plan's environmental protection requirements. County staff is reviewing the application.
The overall idea: To develop about 11,000 acres for both industrial and residential use and include up to 10,500 homes as part of a broad, 50-year plan to create around 30,000 jobs.
However, Plum Creek would also put about 23,000 acres of its land into conservation and company representatives say much of the remaining property would be used for low-impact agriculture and timber production.
Camil and other Stand By Our Plan members are concerned about the wetlands that will be destroyed by the development proposed by Plum Creek. In addition, making these kinds of changes at Plum Creek's behest could make it harder for the county to refuse similar requests in the future, he said.
"So it opens up a big, nasty door that we don't want opened up," Camil said. "We want the County Commission to stand by our plan."
Although Stand By Our Plan supports the Alachua County Comprehensive Plan's approach to growth, not everyone agrees.
Adrian Taylor, a local pastor and the vice president of Innovation Gainesville and regional initiatives for the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce, said Plum Creek's plan would improve the economic disparity troubling east Gainesville, which is a need he doesn't think the comprehensive plan adequately addresses.
"It's creating (an) economic divide," Taylor said of the county's comprehensive plan. "It's creating segregation under a different name."
"We do not have a balanced development plan for Alachua County," said Taylor, who has been part of the Envision Alachua task force.
Byerly sees his role with Stand By Our Plan as one in which he can provide perspectives on the comprehensive plan and the governmental process, he told The Sun.
The goal of the organization is to disseminate information to the community, he said. The only point of view anyone has heard so far is Plum Creek's, and some of the things the company is telling the public are misleading, Byerly said.
"This would change the community permanently in some very fundamental ways, and I'm not comfortable waiting until we come down to the last minute, with a relative handful of public meetings, making a decision that big and complicated," he said. "We've had one-way communication so far. We want to make it a conversation, a true debate."
Forming a political action committee was discussed but the organization doesn't plan to do that at this point, Byerly said.
Byerly noted there are critical differences between the comprehensive plan and Plum Creek's proposal.
The comprehensive plan recognizes that this area of the county isn't appropriate for the intense development that is proposed, which would be the "very definition of sprawl," Byerly said.
One of the most damaging things about sprawl is that it drains investment, Byerly said. Plum Creek's proposal, if approved, would be in direct competition with downtown Gainesville, Byerly said.
East Gainesville's best hope is the continuing revival already happening downtown because those benefits are gradually spreading in all directions, he said.
Plum Creek's sector plan application is a legislative matter for the County Commission, Growth Management Director Steve Lachnicht said.
If it's approved, the commission would eventually hold quasi-judicial proceedings regarding detailed specific area plans for the project.
As permitted by state statute and the county's adopted rules of procedure, commissioners are allowed to have ex-parte communications about pending quasi-judicial actions with non-commissioners as long as they disclose it, which removes the presumption of prejudice, according to County Attorney Michele Lieberman.
Former County Attorney Dave Wagner, who recently retired from the county, discouraged commissioners from having such ex-parte conversations, Byerly said, and Byerly said he's always respected that.
Commissioner Lee Pinkoson said each commissioner can get involved in whatever way they feel is appropriate. For him personally, he said it probably wouldn't be good to get involved in any organized effort either for or against Plum Creek's proposal since this could eventually lead to quasi-judicial proceedings.
Commissioner Susan Baird, who told The Sun she's excited about Plum Creek's plan, said Byerly is just on one end of the spectrum — the no-growth end — while she's on the other.
Commissioner Charles "Chuck" Chestnut IV said he's keeping an open mind and has talked to people representing both Plum Creek and Stand By Our Plan but won't meet with anyone if and when the matter becomes quasi-judicial.
Commissioner Robert "Hutch" Hutchinson used to serve on the Envision Alachua task force but said he and Plum Creek officials agreed he shouldn't stay on it since he would be serving on the County Commission, which he was elected to in November 2012.
Hutchinson isn't part of Stand By Our Plan, which he said would be difficult to do anyway since Byerly is involved and they wouldn't want to potentially run into any Sunshine issues.
Hutchinson also said Lieberman, the county attorney, has said the commissioners should get involved with the issue now that it's still a legislative matter if they're concerned about Plum Creek's proposal rather than waiting until it reaches the quasi-judicial stage.
Hutchinson said he plans to focus on Plum Creek's forestry practices with conservation lands, which he has concerns about, and hopes the county can negotiate some good conservation agreements.
In a statement emailed to The Sun, General Manager Todd Powell of Plum Creek said the company has worked with the community to create Envision Alachua and hopes Byerly will treat the community's vision fairly and approach the matter with an open mind.
While Stand By Our Plan wants to educate the public of its concerns about Plum Creek's plan, the timber company is clear about the merits of its vision.
Over the past couple years, Plum Creek has held community meetings and convened a task force as part of its Envision Alachua process.
Tim Jackson, a senior-level planner with Plum Creek, said the scale of the project addresses a lot of the risks. It would put thousands of acres of land into conservation and would also create job centers for both east Gainesville and Hawthorne.
Jackson addressed some of Stand By Our Plan's concerns, which range from water issues to sprawl. The company aims to set a higher-standard water ethic with its plan and has taken the potential impacts to area wildlife into account.
Plum Creek also wants the land to have a defined edge to its development to prevent sprawl, Jackson said. The form of the development should be definitive and walkable, not spread across the acreage like peanut butter.
It takes a big company with financial backing like Plum Creek to accomplish something this big, Jackson said. But it's important for people to recognize that many Plum Creek employees are also part of this community, he said.
Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or firstname.lastname@example.org.