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Department of Doing, or Department of Delaying?

After almost 2 years of delay, the city commission sends a developer back to the drawing board, and Commissioner Hayes-Santos declares that he will not support any more single-family housing in the city of Gainesville. 

BY JENNIFER CABRERA / JULY 19, 2019

During the July 18 Gainesville City Commission meeting, the commission discussed what to do about a pending deadline for a property rezoning that has been in the works for 10 years. The property being discussed is a development of  approximately 1,778 acres, called “Plum Creek” in the City’s Comprehensive Plan; it is generally located north of US 441 and along the east and west sides of SR 121 (NW 22nd Street). In 2009, the city adopted an ordinance stating that the property must be rezoned to a Planned Development (PD). The deadlines for doing this have been extended multiple times, but on June 15, 2017, the owner (now Weyerhaeuser) submitted an application to have a PD rezoning ordinance adopted for a portion of Plum Creek, and on October 26, 2017, the City Plan Board held a hearing on the application, recommending approval with conditions. On June 7, 2018, the deadline was extended from July 26, 2018 to July 26, 2019. With the deadline looming, the Department of Doing brought this item to the city commission to ask for direction. 

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Andrew Persons, Interim Director of the Department of Doing, explained the history of the property to the commission and the options available to them but did not make a recommendation. The two options that were mainly discussed were Option One (a reset, which essentially requires the property owner to start over with a new plan) and Option Three (scheduling a hearing on the existing zoning application).

Commissioner Harvey Ward spoke first: “I appreciate the very serious care that has been given this, and the very professional attitude that’s been brought to the whole thing by the city staff, as well as by the property owner and the property owner’s representative.” He added, “we probably need to get a better definition of the urban boundaries… I absolutely believe that the landowner has property rights. I also absolutely believe that there are ramifications to whatever we do moving forward on the rest of the people of Gainesville and of Alachua County and the whole region, really…But I think what’s really on the table right now… and mentioned in the documentation, is the expansion of the wetlands.”

Commissioner Gigi Simmons asked several times why the recommendation from the City Plan Board had not been brought to the city commission; Persons did not answer that question but repeatedly told her that if she wanted to hear the rezoning application, that would be Option Three, and that would involve scheduling a separate hearing.

Commissioner Hayes-Santos said, “I do support Option One, resetting the process, for a variety of different reasons. The first one is while the majority of this project does not include exclusionary zoning, single-family zoning, it does include that. And moving forward I’m not going to support any land use or zoning changes that allow single-family sprawling housing zoning. I don’t think that’s good for our city. I do think portions of this would be very good and be helpful in creating a green belt around the city… portions of this can be a missing link in that. I think you both can have the development happen but also have a green belt happen…I think the PD portion of it has some very good things in it… if it was a PD approved today, it most likely, with our commission now, would include an affordable housing kind of element or requirement.” 

Before reading the information presented by the property owners, it’s worth looking at the mission statement on the Department of Doing website: “By focusing on the needs of citizens, not staff or regulatory documents, we are making others successful. Our two divisions are re-examining everything we do to create a seamless experience for our citizens. Our team of teams approach facilitates a cooperative approach to helping citizens start or grow a business, build a home, or engage with their community.” 

Back to the meeting: Because the item was brought forward by city staff, the owners of the property and their representatives were only allowed to speak as citizens, for 3 minutes each. David Coffey, a land use attorney representing the property owner, said, “if anyone has the impression that the areas designated conservation represented the wetlands for the entire site, it did not. And we know that the wetlands have not actually grown. They’ve simply been delineated recently to establish where they are.” He said the owners had not been able to communicate with the members of the city commission, even individually, about the PD zoning and the conservation management plan because they are quasi-judicial in nature. “The only reason that the PD zoning has not already been heard by this board in accordance with your code is because the city has held it up for 20 months without any explanation to the owner… Everything in it—the PD has been considered by the city plan board and your staff, both of which recommended approval, and what’s needed is a hearing before this board in order for it to be voted up or down… If you take action today approving Option One, we’re unable to get that hearing, in contravention of your own code.”

Tim Jackson, Director of Development for Weyerhaeuser Company, was next: “We, Weyerhaeuser, received approval October 27 from the Plan Board… and we were going to hearing in January of 2018, and city staff asked us to please hold off off on going to hearing, until we finished a management plan for the conservation management area. So we submitted that plan, it was finalized in June of last year, so we’ve waited all this time to get to a hearing…We have had only one meeting with staff to talk about what the issues are, because staff kept telling us, ‘We’re hiring a consultant, we’re hiring another consultant,’ and we’ve never seen a staff report, even. So we have been here following your process, what your code says. We have asked, we have submitted the application, we have revised it as required, as you asked. We then acquiesced this past May and said, look, everything staff asked for, we’ll do, period. So that’s where we are today. We think, one, your code says when the plan board makes a recommendation, it goes to the city commission. So we’re asking you to follow your code. Second, we’re just asking for fairness. I mean, we have been at this, as you see, from October 2017… to just say okay, we’re not even going to hear the application is something I’ve just never heard of a city doing. So I think in fairness, I’m asking you to pick Option Three, let this rezoning come before you, so you can deliberate. Am I comfortable with that zoning on this piece of land and that location? That’s what the process is set for… This complies with current city code. If you all are thinking there’s some new code you want to put and apply to this land, that’s a different issue. This application applies to the current city code. It uses the current definition of wetlands that are in state statute, that are in city statute. It uses all those same things. There’s no — there’s nothing here new about this piece of land that’s technical, that’s physical, that should cause you to say, okay, this is the wrong use here.”

Clay Sweger, a land planner that’s working with Weyerhaeuser, spoke next: “I can speak in general concern about wetlands, and I can say that the applicant, the land owner, has spent a significant amount of money in recent times to redelineate all the wetlands, because they have grown. Those wetlands are now delineated in completeness and have been verified by different jurisdictional agencies, including the city. And our application avoids 100% of those wetlands. There’s been a lot of time and effort put into those protections… Also, in the approved comprehensive plan there is actually, I just wanted to bring to the commission’s attention, there is a requirement for affordable housing in this project. Which, to my knowledge, I don’t know of any other projects that actually have that… requirement. So there is a component of affordable housing put in, and we’re very proud of that as part of the zoning application… As far as the process, this has been a long-standing application, I would say, approximately two years ago we submitted the zoning application…We resubmitted our application in July of last year. A year ago… According to the city’s process, you’re supposed to receive more comments within a small period of time, 30, 40 days, I’m not sure exactly… but obviously we’ve gone past that. Part of that is they wanted to hire a consultant on the outside to review the application, and we were amenable to that. But we haven’t received any formal comments from the city since we resubmitted a year ago… We feel like we’ve been working in good faith with all the appropriate time lines and just have not received any formal response.”

Commissioner Warren said she was leaning toward Option One (the reset): “We’re looking for more of a forward vision than what we did in 2008 or 2007 when you initiated your proposals.”

Mayor Poe spoke next: “I believe that this parcel or pair of parcels offers a great development opportunity. It is adjacent to a large commercial center. It’s adjacent to significant residential. It’s relatively close to amenities like grocery stores, and other things like that. And so it’s — it has the potential to be a very, very good location for what I would envision a mixed use development. What it doesn’t include is inclusionary zoning. What it doesn’t include is a better use of the property, what it doesn’t include, and something that got talked about originally, was some sort of symbiotic relationship with GRU because we have the land and capacity to do some innovative things with both energy and water. Those are all great potentials… I think we both can come out better if we hit the reset button… And then, you know, I certainly personally, I think the commission, and staff—looking at Mr. Persons—will make this a top priority and make sure that we move through that process in a very expeditious fashion to not delay it further and start realizing the potential that can be added to both our community and the property rights of the land owner, as well.”

Hayes-Santos moved that they go ahead with Option One: “Direct staff to prepare a City-initiated land use amendment and related rezoning petition to designate the entire property to the City of Gainesville Agricultural land use and the accompanying Agricultural zoning district.” Hayes-Santos continued, “I agree with what you were saying… I think the owner can come back and have some land use and zoning that has a better fit with our community.”

The motion passed unanimously.

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