Three years ago, Plum Creek said it was serious about involving the community in planning the future of the 60,000 acres of land it owns in the unincorporated area of Alachua County — a holding that is more than 40 times the size of the University of Florida campus and nearly three times the size of Paynes Prairie.*
Keeping its promise to involve the community, the company launched Envision Alachua, engaging the public in a manner that is unprecedented locally. To date, the planning process has included 11 Task Force meetings, six community workshops, four Technical Advisory Group meetings, and four education forums involving more than 1,700 people from the community. In addition, Plum Creek staff has participated in 340 meetings and sponsored an economic development forum with the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce.
“This is a microcosm of how we are going to answer questions facing people around the world in developing a sustainable future,” said Jack Payne, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at the University of Florida. “It’s a great lesson in democracy for Florida and the world.”
Payne is a member of the 32-member Envision Alachua task force, which includes representatives of community organizations, educational institutions, business groups and environmental groups — some of whom are often on opposite sides of issues.
This diverse group has reached a consensus on how the Plum Creek property will evolve over the next 50 years — with the goal of creating jobs while conserving the vast majority of the property.
In December, Plum Creek submitted a sector plan application to the Alachua County government based on the task force’s recommendations. Sector planning is a rarely used mechanism under state law that allows owners of 15,000 acres or more to seek an amendment to a county’s comprehensive plan that is tailored to its vision for the property’s future over the next 50 years.
Using the sector plan — with a 50-year perspective — for future planning is a better approach than considering smaller projects one-by-one, said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida.
“It’s much easier to deal with one large landowner,” he said.
Plum Creek has done more than any other landowner in the state to involve stakeholders in planning the future of its property, Draper added.
The Envision Alachua Task Force created a vision statement for the future of Plum Creeks’ land in the unincorporated area focused on three pillars:
- Economy – Create economic development opportunities that support and enhance the innovation economy, provide job opportunities and services at all economic levels and ensure a robust and sustainable economy.
- Environment – Support the development of communities that have a balanced and compatible mix of land uses and sustainable development practices while conserving land to protect ecosystems, wildlife corridors and working landscapes.
- Community – Stimulate community engagement and participation in planning for a future that provides a high quality of life for all current and future residents on and around Plum Creek lands in Alachua County.
Local, regional and state officials are reviewing the submission, which is expected to come to the Alachua County Commission for a vote within the next year.
Concentrating Development While Conserving Nature
Plum Creek became the largest landowner in Alachua County — and one of the largest in the United States — when it purchased the land holdings of Georgia Pacific Corp. in 2001. Seattle-based Plum Creek owns 7 million acres in 19 states.
What do you plan to do with your holdings? Alachua County officials asked Plum Creek officials.
Plum Creek eschewed the traditional approach to development, which involves hiring several consultants and arbitrarily creating its own proposal. Instead, the company dedicated itself to involving the Alachua County community in developing a future vision for the property.
It did hire consultants, but it selected ones who had solid track records — around the country and even globally — in involving stakeholders in planning. Plum Creek was determined to maximize both the conservation of its land as well as its economic potential, said Todd Powell, Plum Creek’s general manager and a Gainesville resident.
Thus was born Envision Alachua, involving a broad-based task force of stakeholders and numerous community workshops.
“We see this process as a model in our portfolio for how we can maximize the return to both the company and the community,” Powell said.
Using Development Rights Wisely
Alachua County’s Comprehensive Plan favors compact development, requiring that any development in rural areas that exceeds 24 homes be clustered as a community.
“The vision, as translated into the Comprehensive Plan over the past 10 years, provides for creativity in the design of new development, including protection of conservation areas,” said Ken Zeichner, the county’s principal planner for comprehensive planning.
On the other hand, owners of property designated “rural” in the comprehensive plan are entitled to build one home per five acres of land. In Plum Creek’s case, the math works as follows:
- The predecessors of Plum Creek placed 23,000 acres of the 60,000 acres it owns in unincorporated Alachua County (the areas outside cities and towns) into conservation several years ago.
- Based on one unit per five acres, the company is entitled to build about 7,400 housing units on the remaining 37,000 acres.
Taking Conservation Seriously
The broad community involvement in Envision Alachua has led to Plum Creek committing to environmental measures that exceed what the county’s comprehensive plan requires.
For example, the sector plan would require at least 51,000 acres be labeled for conservation, agriculture or open space at the same time that an additional 8,000 acres are made available for urban development. The current comprehensive plan does not require this high ratio when converting rural lands for urban development.
Another key example is that the sector plan would create a minimum 2,000-foot wide conservation corridor along the portions of Lochloosa Creek that run through Plum Creek’s property. The current comprehensive plan would only require an average 75-foot wide buffer outside the creek and its adjoining wetlands.
Another goal that came through community involvement is to reduce water consumption within developed areas of Plum Creek’s property to 50 percent of typical usage.
One way the sector plan achieves this reduction is by eliminating the use of drinking (potable) water for landscape irrigation. If homeowners want grass, they would need to “harvest” rainwater for their lawns, said Tim Jackson, Plum Creek’s director of real estate.
Other provisions of the plan include:
- The majority of homes within the developed area will be within a half mile of places of employment.
- The majority of jobs will be within a half mile of future transit to east Gainesville or Hawthorne.
- A total of 340 acres of rural land surrounding Windsor would act as a buffer to development, helping preserve the rural nature of the community.
- An additional protection in the Windsor area would change the zoning on 2,300 acres from the current one unit per five acres to one home per 40 acres.
- The area in which jobs are located would include its own internal street network to discourage travel on rural roads in the area.
Task Force member Justin Williams, an officer in the Cracker Boys Hunt Club, worried about how Envision Alachua would affect the group’s long heritage of hunting in the 14,000 acres it leases from Plum Creek.
“My children are the fourth generation of my family to hunt on these lands,” he said.
Williams has discovered new supporters among task force members.
“I found that the group was very accepting of our views and even grew to support the heritage of hunting that my family and fellow hunt club members enjoy,” he said.
Jobs for the “GED to the Ph.D.” has been one of the themes of the Envision Alachua Task Force.
Based on the task force recommendations, Plum Creek is departing from traditional planning of large developments and putting more emphasis on attracting jobs than on building homes, noted Jackson. It would plan for three jobs for every residential dwelling built, which could be a home, duplex or apartment.
Of the 11,000 acres slated for development, at least 30 percent are reserved for open space; on the remaining 8,000 acres, the plan provides room for office, research and manufacturing space — accommodating about 30,000 jobs — and 10,500 residential dwellings to be built over the next 50 years. The plan also calls for retail space and for companies that provide services to the new employees and residents.
Plum Creek plans to recruit large “advanced manufacturing” companies to the area.
Such companies require large amounts of land, and no other property that can support this type of employment need is available in Alachua County, said Envision Alachua Task Force member Adrian Taylor, who is vice president of Innovation Gainesville and regional initiatives for the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce.
Plum Creek will emphasize attracting jobs for people living in the Hawthorne area — the location it is targeting for development — and in East Gainesville, Jackson noted.
The University of Florida is considering placing agricultural research facilities in the area, says Task Force member Jane Adams, UF’s vice president for university relations.
The existing transportation system makes Plum Creek’s land in the Hawthorne area ideal for business uses. Transportation routes include U.S. 301 and the CSX rail line, which borders Plum Creek’s land for eight miles.
The rail line is becoming more important as CSX devotes its other Florida track, which runs closer to the coast, to a planned high-speed rail line.
Addressing the Needs of East Gainesville
Plum Creek’s plans will help meet the “absolute need” to reduce poverty in Alachua County, said Adrian Taylor, senior minister of the Springhill Missionary Baptist Church, who also is vice president of Innovation Gainesville and regional initiatives for the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce
“We have a tale of two cities, a tale of two worlds, and I’m no longer satisfied with the status quo,” said Taylor.
Plans for Envision Alachua will help address the needs of East Gainesville, an area in which poverty is concentrated, said David Denslow, a retired University of Florida economist.
That will happen by providing full-time jobs in manufacturing and other fields near to East Gainesville, helping overcome the three barriers to employment in the area, Denslow said.
The first barrier is that most jobs are difficult to reach via public transportation. Having jobs near East Gainesville and providing additional public transportation to them will help overcome this barrier, Denslow said.
Barrier No. 2 is the relatively low number of manufacturing jobs in Alachua County. Attracting manufacturing jobs, many of which require only a high school education, can reduce this barrier.
The third barrier to jobs for East Gainesville residents is competition from University of Florida and Santa Fe College students. However, college students aren’t likely to fill the full-time manufacturing jobs, Denslow said.
“East Gainesville residents who are high school dropouts or have a high school education will have a better chance of finding good jobs,” Denslow said.
Former County Commissioner Tom Coward is a member of the Envision Alachua Task Force. He’s witnessed many other planning efforts that involved East Gainesville since the 1970s, including:
• 1986 study that led to development of the Food Lion plaza on Hawthorne Road
• 1997 study that was followed by creation of the Gainesville Technology Enterprise Center, also on Hawthorne Road
• 2003 study, after which the Super Walmart on Waldo Road was built.
Despite previous progress, East Gainesville has not attracted sustained economic development, Coward says.
“We need a drawing card,” he says. “We don’t have any beaches or tourist attractions.”
East Gainesville has the potential to become the home for jobs in manufacturing and processing agricultural goods, Coward believes. Plum Creek, as well as the University of Florida and Santa Fe College, has the resources to help move in that direction, he says.
“I’m excited about having a large land owner with deep pockets take a long-range view,” said Scott Koon. Executive Director, North Central Florida Regional Planning Council “This planning process can be a game-changer for all of eastern Alachua County.”
How Much Land Is It?
It’s difficult to get your mind around the magnitude of the economic development of Plum Creek’s lands.
What does it mean that the company plans to develop 8,000 acres, or that it intends to attract 30,000 jobs over the next 50 years? Or what does it mean that Plum Creek plans to build 14 million square feet of space for business uses — including advanced manufacturing, research and development space and office and institutional uses?
To put these numbers in perspective, consider these comparisons:
- The University of Florida campus is less than 1,400 acres.
- The Florida campus of The Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter, considered an economic boon when it opened in 2009, operates a 350,000-square-foot state-of-the-art biomedical research facility, a modest number compared to the 14 million square feet in commercial space that Plum Creek plans.
- The Volkswagen Assembly Plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., considered a coup for the area, employs 2,000.
Plum Creek stands a good chance of attracting major manufacturing and research facilities, said Nick Banks, managing director of Front Street Commercial Real Estate Group.
Large manufacturing plants and research centers need to work with a property owner that is capable of developing large parcels of land and has the financial capacity to carry out the development, Banks said.
These employers are also looking for characteristics that exist in Alachua County — a good available work force, high-quality educational institutions and an attractive lifestyle, Banks said.
“A unique convergence exists,” Banks said. “The right owners have the right amount of land in the right location.”
Santa Fe College is excited about helping prepare nearby residents for jobs, said Dug Jones, the college’s assistant vice president for economic development.
The college can tailor job training for specific employers moving to the Plum Creek land, as it has done for other new employers in Alachua County, Jones said.
In the short run, Santa Fe will help prepare residents of Hawthorne and East Gainesville to fill existing jobs in the community, he added.
Santa Fe began offering community education in Hawthorne in January, including computer, health and art classes. The college is considering academic classes there for the 2014-2015 school year.
The educators’ committee that was formed as an offshoot of Envision Alachua is also working on quickly getting residents to be involved in St. Leo University’s Gainesville branch and attend job-training classes offered by FloridaWorks.
“When the jobs come, we want to have people geared up and ready,” said Task Force member Gladys Wright, who is the retired principal of Shell Elementary School in Hawthorne. “We have a lot of low-income people and seniors who need good jobs.”
Additionally, the committee is devoted to giving school children a stronger foundation, Wright said.
“We have to begin at the elementary school level to prepare students for filling quality jobs,” she said. “The reality is that many of our youth are capable, but they don’t have the aspiration to succeed. We have to encourage them to be productive, and we have to boost their self-esteem.”
Long-time Windsor leader Bobbi Walton was worried that the Envision Alachua process would end up destroying the character of the hamlet in which she and her husband have lived for 48 years.
Now Walton, a member of the Envision Alachua task force, feels like she’s having the best of both worlds; Plum Creek plans to implement a development buffer around Windsor while providing economic benefits to the community.
Plum Creek has been able to involve community members and representatives from a broad range of organizations, including the University of Florida, Santa Fe College, county government, environmental organizations and East Gainesville leaders, Walton noted.
“They’ve done something the county can’t afford to do and involved everyone in planning,” Walton said. “There won’t be anybody shocked when they show up for their building permits.”
Walton is eager for Plum Creek’s plans to proceed. “I want them to hurry up because I want to live long enough to see the vision become a reality,” she said.
The Florida Chapter of the American Planning Association presented Plum Creek with its 2013 APA Award of Excellence in the Best Practices Category for its Envision Alachua process.
Brian Teeple, president of the organization, applauded the public involvement and transparency of Envision Alachua.
“The committee specifically noted the commitment that Plum Creek has made to the all-inclusive nature of the process, engaging residents from all over Alachua County including those whose voices are typically not heard in the planning process,” he said.
Envision Alachua Task Force Members
- Jane Adams, vice president, university relations, the University of Florida
- Dr. Dale Brill, founder, Thinkspot Inc.
- Rob Brinkman, vice chair of Citizens Advisory Committee to MTPO, former chair of Suwannee St. Johns Sierra Club
- Dorothy M. Brown, Windsor resident
- Robert Castellucci, president, CEO, RoomSync
- Dr. Karen Cole-Smith, executive director, community outreach and East Gainesville instruction, Santa Fe College
- Ken Cornell, Realtor, Bosshardt Realty Services
- Tom Coward, retired Alachua county commissioner and retired Lincoln High School teacher
- Ed Dix, Realtor, developer, Edix Investments, Inc.
- Mike Dykes, officer, Cracker Boys Hunt Club, senior project manager, CH2MHILL
- Vivian Filer, chair, Cotton Club Museum & Cultural Center, retired, Santa Fe College and Shands Healthcare
- Tim Giuliani, president and CEO, Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce & Council for Economic Outreach
- Eric Godet, president & CEO, Godet Industries
- Dr. Richard Hilsenbeck, director, conservation projects, The Nature Conservancy
- Pete Johnson, former board member, Gainesville Regional Airport Authority
- Dug Jones, associate vice president of economic development, Santa Fe College
- Nona Jones, public affairs director, GRU
- Lindsay Krieg, Director of Volunteer Services, UF Health
- Charles Lee, director of advocacy, Audubon Florida
- Vicki McGrath, director, community planning, Alachua County Public Schools
- Dr. Jack Payne, senior vice president, agriculture and natural resources, University of Florida
- Brad Pollitt, vice president of facilities, Shands Healthcare
- Ed Regan, energy and utilities consultant; retired, assistant general manager, strategic planning, GRU
- Steven Seibert, Former Secretary of the FL Department of Community Affairs