Plum Creek Sector Plan Application
Commissioner Robert Hutchinson has released his views on the Plum Creek Sector Plan application. The full text can be found here, titled “Perspective on Envision Alachua’s Plan”:
This is my reply. These written comments were entered into the public record at Tuesday’s County Commission meeting, so they can now be distributed in accordance with Florida’s “Government in the Sunshine” law.
While seemingly sharing the same goals, it appears we’ve arrived at different conclusions regarding Plum Creek. I have my own perspective, but I’m using his comments as a template in order to underscore where our views diverge. This reply is an attempt to understand why they diverge; it’s not a tit-for-tat showdown. I hope it prompts further exchanges among commissioners, something I believe is long overdue.
First, some background. The Alachua County Comprehensive Plan (CP,) is the core public policy document of our county. It outlines where and how growth will unfold in the unincorporated county. With due bureaucratic precision, it is organized around broad foundational Goals, under each of which are more specific Objectives, and finally specific Policies that implement the Goals and Objectives. It also has a map that specifies the “Land Use” designation for every parcel in the unincorporated county. Minor revisions to the “Policies,” intended to more effectively implement the broad “Goals,” are common, as are corresponding tweaks to the map.
Plum Creek wants different rules that would apply only to their land (for now,) that would abandon two of the most foundational components of the entire plan: the growth boundary, and a cluster of enhanced environmental protections for wetlands and significant ecosystems. Plum Creek claims that their proposal is needed because there is no plan for future growth in the eastern part of the county, where all their land happens to be.
The current CP and its implementing regulations took shape over roughly a decade. County staff have recorded some 207 public meetings on the CP during that period, including 60 workshops and 46 public hearings of the Board of County Commissioners and Planning Commission; 58 meetings of more than 15 different citizen advisory committees; 27 Town Meetings, Community Workshops and Public Forums; and (at least) 16 meetings with various stakeholder groups, ranging from the Builders Association of North Central Florida to the Sierra Club.
Countless issue-by-issue compromises were reached during this process, many of them before recommendations ever came to the Board of County Commissioners. In addition, legal challenges and an electoral about-face that brought Lee Pinkoson and Cynthia Chestnut to the Commission led to many more substantial compromises. In the end, a product emerged that everyone on a politically diverse Commission could vote into law, even if we all had hold our noses while doing it.
The CP has remained essentially unchanged over the past decade. It weaves together the common denominator in the often competing public interests of economic growth, social justice, and environmental protection. The county is again growing robustly under its framework, but in a more fiscally prudent and environmentally conscientious direction than previously. In my opinion, it’s the best thing this county has going for it as we grow into an uncertain future.
For what it’s worth, here are some of the accolades our CP has received from those who “do it for a living:”
– 2015 One of 20 plans selected for inclusion in American Planning Association (APA) publication “PAS Essential Info Packet EIP-35.”
– 2012 Better Communities Award, 1000 Friends of Florida
– 2011 Award of Excellence, American Planning Association Florida (Strongest in Livable Built Environment, Harmony with Nature, Interwoven Equity, Healthy Community, Responsible Regionalism, and Characteristics.)
– 2009 Planning Excellence Award, Florida Department of Community Affairs, for Coordinated Land Use and Transportation Planning
Against this, Plum Creek offers the tightly controlled public relations initiative it dubs “Envision Alachua,” and asks that we do it all over on their behalf.
Commissioner Hutchinson appears indifferent to the CP, and equates it dismissively with Plum Creek’s Envision Alachua in his only reference to it: “…both processes were controlled by insiders and delivered outcomes that are unsatisfactory.” He goes on to state that we have “failed to imagine the solution,” and that there has been a “failure to do good planning.” He proposes that we jettison the current plan and embark on an unspecified “other way forward.”
It’s an unfair blanket condemnation that ignores the actual history, throws out an extraordinary amount of good work, and offers nothing concrete in its place. He doesn’t specify how, or why, his process would eject elected “insiders,” and place unelected “outsiders” in control.
I’m one of those “insiders.” I was placed there by the voters of Alachua County to make public policy. I’m not satisfied with the CP, either. However, a modest growth plan is preferable to none at all, and the current CP is as close to an enduring “community consensus” on growth as we’re ever going to get. The alternative is the market-driven free-for-all that has left so many Florida communities unlivable, and that is what Plum Creek really offers.
Specifically, Commissioner Hutchinson lists the three biggest problems he believes our community faces. By inference, the solutions to these problems contained in the CP are the “unacceptable outcomes” mentioned above, though no specifics are cited.
1. “…higher quality jobs, and how to distribute the geography of economic development more equitably.” There is no evidence, or even logical explanation, for the belief that growth on Plum Creek’s land would be different in nature than the growth it would compete with in more suitable parts of the county, and that includes wages. The burden of proof is on Plum Creek, and they’ve offered nothing but advertising. As for “equitable distribution of economic development,” nearly all of the area designated for growth in the CP in the coming decades is closer to East Gainesville than the corresponding Plum Creek land, and isn’t separated from it by miles of lake, swamp, and conservation land. The best hope for East Gainesville is the continuing renaissance of downtown Gainesville, just fifteen blocks away, rather than fifteen miles. And like all sprawl, “Envision Alachua” would undermine urban viability.
2. “How to protect the environment…” This is just bewildering. The CP is fundamentally about this. It’s why it directs growth to existing population centers, mixes land uses, designates areas that are unsuitable for intensive development (like most of Plum Creek’s land,) encourages multimodal transportation, requires clustering of rural development, requires that private development set aside public Open Space, protects wetlands and strategic ecosystems, and so on. How should we improve on this?
3. “How to accommodate the future growth that does not subsidize the patterns of development which are inefficient, costly, and ugly…” In other words, how to contain SPRAWL. This is likewise bewildering. Envision Alachua is the very definition of sprawl; it’s why so many people are opposed to it. It’s why we have a CP, which, if nothing else, seeks to contain sprawl. How should we improve on this?
Our Comprehensive Plan was designed to address all three of these problems, and does so far more effectively than Plum Creek’s proposal. At a minimum, constructive criticism should be accompanied by specific suggestions for improvement. Chances are, any such suggestions were thoroughly considered during the lengthy adoption process.
Commissioner Hutchinson states, “I had hoped for a serious economic analysis by Plum Creek and/or the County….” It’s unclear why this hope would exist. Plum Creek can’t do a serious economic analysis, since they have no idea what form their developments will ultimately take. The market, along with the individual future buyers of their land parcels, each with their own ambitions, will determine that. Moreover, it isn’t the County’s place to conduct economic analyses on private sector business plans.
Commissioner Hutchinson also states that “It would have been better from the outset to delineate a larger area in the eastern county and to plan for the entire area…” This is a common Plum Creek refrain. The CP encompasses, and plans for, the entire county. A core principle of the CP is to direct growth to population centers and their peripheries, to combat sprawl, and for a host of other good reasons. In the eastern county, the areas designated for growth are eastern Gainesville, and the towns of Hawthorne, Micanopy, Waldo, and Melrose. Land designated for growth of all kinds already greatly exceeds market demand.
Which brings us to the essence of the Plum Creek issue: their place in our plan doesn’t maximize value for their shareholders, so they’ve proposed a new plan that does. To the extent that future Jacksonville expansion brings growth to the eastern half of our county, as Plum Creek is banking on, their land would be in direct competition with the more appropriate areas designated for growth by the CP. Plum Creek has no ability to make such growth happen, as they promise; rather, they can see what the future holds, and they’re getting ready for it. The real question for our county: when growth comes to the eastern half of our county, where is the best place for it? Which brings us back to the CP…
Commissioner Hutchinson bemoans the inability of Plum Creek to “…overcome the skepticism that this effort is primarily one of creating speculative real estate value through marketing to our community leaders.” Perhaps people got that skepticism from Plum Creek CEO Rick Holley, who bluntly outlined their intentions to investors in a recent interview:
“One of the key incentives for the company over the past several years has been the entitlement of our most valuable development properties. Through the pursuit of these entitlements, we change the very nature of these assets and create long term value for shareholders. We do not intend to pursue vertical development [construction], or invest a significant amount of capital [infrastructure] into these properties. Rather, our strategy is to spend time and effort to move these properties up the value chain through entitlement and capture that value [sell.]”
Their intentions are clear. The donations to local charities won’t continue forever. The friendly locals hired to shepherd this proposal through the process won’t be making the decisions.
Commissioner Hutchinson pins hope on persuading Plum Creek to change the environmentally destructive way they manage their timberlands, in exchange for granting them entitlements. “…Plum Creek has proposed important changes to their local forestry practices if the Envision Alachua plan moves forward.” No, they haven’t. I have bluntly posed this question to them several times, and did so again two weeks ago. I was given an equally blunt answer: it’s not on the table. I believe them.
He correctly criticizes Plum Creek’s refusal to specify how public infrastructure and services would be provided to their new city, or how it will be paid for. For the reasons outlined above, they can’t do that. However, the CP they want us to abandon offers an appropriate context and process for planning and allocating needs and costs for new development.
Commissioner Hutchinson also outlines an ambitious redevelopment scenario for Tacachale and other lands along the Waldo Road corridor that has left many people scratching their heads. It’s not that this vision isn’t worthy of consideration; it just that it has nothing whatsoever to do with Plum Creek. They aren’t going to use the hypothetical proceeds from selling their land to the state to do philanthropic work in east Gainesville. They’ve already made that perfectly clear.
The end game for Plum Creek problem is to buy their most environmentally significant lands, while allowing development in due course on their lands that are suitable for development, such as parcels adjacent to Hawthorne and along the US 301/CSX rail corridor. The problem is that the area Plum Creek designates for the most intense development is firmly astride what is arguably the most environmentally critical unprotected land in the county. On top of that, why would we precede future land negotiations by dramatically increasing the market value of the very lands we want to acquire with one short-sighted vote?
While many grim possible futures can be imagined, the best we can do now is develop a good land use plan, stick with it, and leave our children with as many open options as we can, so that they can navigate safely through what will undoubtedly be more challenging times than ours. That’s the way forward. It isn’t dramatic.
In the meantime, PC is moving ahead with development of their Hawthorne parcels. As tempting as it is for current elected officials to get their hands on the future, why rush to give away fifty years of development rights, when we don’t know what next year holds? Let’s see what they do in Hawthorne.
Alachua County Commissioner