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County Commission discusses aquatics facility, the airboat ordinance, and Dignity Village

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

On January 7, the Alachua County Commission held a Special Meeting to discuss possible sites for an aquatics facility. 

In response to a proposal from Gator Swim Club and Gator Water Polo (under the name Camp Florida) to purchase the Camp McConnell land from Alachua County, the commission asked staff to come up with alternate sites for an aquatics facility. This meeting was held to discuss the resulting list. Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler, who has been vocal about her desire to keep the site as county land, was absent. 

Charlie Houder, Director of Parks and Conservation Lands for Alachua County, presented a map of possible parcels of land in the area. The Camp Florida team has requested sites with at least 30 acres in southern Alachua County, near I-75. 

Houder said 4 sites rose to the surface. Camp McConnell has 133 acres available for some type of development, and it fits all their criteria.

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Wacahoota Preserve on Williston Road has 200 acres, but part of the land is licensed to Gator Bowmen through 2023. There are 50 undeveloped acres along Williston Road that are outside the licensed area. There are some restrictions on development because of sinks and low-lying areas but no wetlands.  The Preserve does not have water or sewer and is outside the urban cluster. 

Diamond Sports Park in Newberry is owned by the Alachua County School Board. Its western portion, around 28 acres, is undeveloped but is currently reserved for a potential high school or middle school.

The WRUF tower site at SW 8th Avenue and Tower Road is owned by the University of Florida. It is unknown whether they would want to sell. 

David Huelsman, from Gator Swim Club, and Robert Pinter, from Gator Water Polo, discussed the sites with the commission. Their new proposal offers to buy the Camp McConnell land outright and then partner with the county (for a fee) in providing swim lessons and camping opportunities to underprivileged kids. Huelsman said the offer to partner with the county is in response to comments from commissioners; the revenue isn’t necessary for their business plan.

Huelsman said Camp McConnell is better than the alternate sites that were discussed. Although the existing camp facilities will need a lot of renovation, at least they wouldn’t have to start from scratch. Also, they’ve done research on other aquatics facilities, and they all run large deficits. Huelsman and Pinter say their plan will only be successful if they have income from camps and other activities on top of swim lessons and swim meets. Huelsman also said he’s seen implications in the newspaper that high-rises will be built at Camp McConnell if it’s sold, and “nobody is trying to put high-rises on these pieces of property.”

Commissioner Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson pointed out that Wild Spaces Public Places money can’t be used for operations; it’s possible that tourist development money could be used to help Camp Florida, since swim meets and other events would generate hotel stays. Commissioner Ken Cornell said that it must be a “highest and best use” before they could justify a public subsidy.

Cornell asked why they specifically wanted land in the southwest part of the county. Huelsman said that there are several pools in northeast Gainesville but none in the southwest part of the county, where most of their club members live. He said the location doesn’t matter for a camp, but it has to be close enough to urban areas that people are willing to drive there for swim lessons, lap swims, etc. He said 30 acres is the minimum to create the multiple income streams they would need to make it financially sustainable. 

Commissioner Mike Byerly said he wants to sell Camp McConnell, get the money back, and do other things with the money. He said he didn’t want to spend county money on an aquatics facility, although they may want to pay to use the facilities in the future. Huelsman said they were happy to take the county partnership out of their proposal. 

Commissioner Chuck Chestnut said he was concerned that Camp Florida didn’t have enough money to renovate the camp.  Huelsman responded that they had a $6 million loan from the USDA and $2 million in private funds, so they have enough capital to get moving. 

Hutchinson said the site search was too restricted and that other possible sites, like the Cabot/Koppers site and the fairgrounds, should have been listed. He also said he was in favor of sticking with the county’s current philosophy on recreation, which is to let the cities do recreation programs, while the county does conservation lands. 

Pinter said they couldn’t make an aquatics facility work at one of the alternate sites without a partnership because urban locations wouldn’t feel like a camp, and their business plan requires camp revenue. 

The commission set the issue aside because further discussion of Camp McConnell is on the agenda for their regular meeting on January 14.

Byerly then asked whether an appeal of the order declaring the airboat ordinance unconstitutional is likely to be successful. He argued that the county is obligated to appeal because county residents voted for the ordinance. 

County Attorney Sylvia Torres said that since the order came from a county judge, the appeal would be to circuit court, also in Gainesville. There was some discussion about whether she should notify other cities and counties that have airboat ordinances. 

Byerly moved that the commission should: 1) Direct the County Attorney to appeal the recent decision regarding the airboat curfew; and 2) Notify other jurisdictions in the state of Florida who have similar ordinances about the appeal and invite them to submit amicus briefs. The motion passed 4-0, with Wheeler absent. 

County Manager Michelle Lieberman then gave an update on the delayed closing of Dignity Village. She said the closing had been delayed because of delays in completing the fence, but the fence is now due to be completed by the end of January. Then the onsite campground will be opened, and “they will proceed with the close-out.”

Hutchinson said, “Everybody here needs to drive around the loop and look because there’s all these tent platforms… a bunch of stuff has happened, so it’s not like they’re not doing anything, but the other thing that’ll kind of blow your mind is how big Dignity Village has gotten. It’s even bigger than the last time you were out there, in terms of its areal expanse.”

Byerly said, “Well, the trend is in the wrong direction, as far as our plans are concerned… The demand is growing for a tent option at the time when we’re getting rid of the tent option.”

Hutchinson pointed out that there is no way from keeping new people from showing up without a fence, and it appears that there are more people outside GRACE’s fence than there were 6 months ago. 

Byerly said, “That’s what I’m saying, so something’s not working… They’re going back into the woods. We don’t want them to go back into the woods… [Tents are] going away, is my point, when demand seems to be growing for that housing option.”