Rob Brinkman: Plum Creek undertaking unprecedented planning effort

Published: Wednesday, April 16, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 15, 2014 at 4:43 p.m.

Fifty years ago, the population of Alachua County was only about a third of its current population, Interstate 75 was just opened and Gainesville began a rapid and mostly unplanned westward expansion.

Today our community has the opportunity to plan for the next 50 years of eastern Alachua County. I serve on the Envision Alachua Task Force with more than 30 other citizens, to provide input on the creation of a 50-year master plan for over 60,000 acres owned by Plum Creek in eastern Alachua County.

There has never been such long-range or large-scale planning in our community. Many have welcomed the concept of providing for jobs in a community where income disparity is the fifth largest in the U.S.

Some have opposed the Envision Alachua process from its inception and characterized it as a housing development on a scale approaching the Villages. It really is so much more. The Envision Alachua sector plan would create the only place in our county that could accommodate tens of thousands of jobs for all skill and education levels with access to rail lines and highways with connections to a proposed inland port near Lake City

The sector plan adds over 23,000 acres of Plum Creek land to the more than 23,000 acres it already has in conservation, totaling over 46,000 acres conserved out of a 60,000-acre sector. Well over three-quarters of the land will not be developed at all. Of the remaining acres, about 11,000 would be placed in a new land-use designation — employment-oriented mixed use — where employment centers can be built on a scale that is simply not available anywhere else in our county. This mixed-use designation also requires that a majority of residences will be built within walking distance of viable jobs, as well as accessory uses such as transit, parks and services.

This fulfills an existing comprehensive plan goal to reduce traffic congestion, vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse gas emissions. Of the lands designated employment-oriented mixed use, over 30 percent will be open space.

Current state water policies call for a local-sources-first strategy; the sector plan calls for a conservation-first strategy. In the mixed-use areas, private wells and septic tanks will not be permitted, the use of water from the aquifer for landscape irrigation will not be permitted and use of reclaimed water and rainwater harvesting are encouraged. Florida-friendly landscaping will be required.

Over the next 50 years, tens of thousands of new residents will move to our county. If they reside in areas with water-use restrictions such as those in the sector plan, the per-capita water consumption will be over 50 percent lower than the current average. Clearly the plan provides for innovative water conservation policies that could be a model for other Florida communities.

New developments are required to have no significant impact on surface waters and buffers are generally required between development and water bodies, but these are typically measured in hundreds of feet or less. In the sector plan, Lochloosa Creek will be protected by a buffer of 2,000 feet: over 13 times the distance required by existing regulations.

Lochloosa Lake is currently listed as an impaired water body. To address this problem, the sector plan requires the selection and funding by Plum Creek of a regionally significant water quality project designed to improve on the existing baseline water quality in Lochloosa Lake.

During the last task force meeting on Oct. 30, a passing comment was made estimating that approximately 200 comprehensive plan policies may be proposed. In actuality, there are 81 new proposed policies to enable a large-scale innovative project not envisioned under the current plan.

Just as they have for the last 50 years, people will continue to move to this area over the next 50 years. The adoption of the Envision Alachua sector plan is a legislative process, allowing for negotiations.

Plum Creek has spent years gathering community input to develop the sector plan for large-scale employment opportunities, and they are offering to double the amount of land they have already conserved, prohibiting its development forever. Rather than just saying "no," those with concerns should propose ways to address their concerns. Ultimately, however, jobs will only be created by viable projects.

Clearly we should not repeat the mistakes of the mostly unplanned growth during the previous 50 years. Can we afford not to plan for a more sustainable future?

Rob Brinkman lives in Gainesville.

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