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  • Writer's pictureTom Reilly

Major land-use change could spur one of Gainesville's largest housing developments in history

Andrew Caplan

The Gainesville Sun

One of the largest residential developments in Gainesville's history may soon come to pass after a long-debated rezoning was given the green light Thursday.

With the approval, the city may one day see an influx of much-needed housing, though the plans may span decades.

The City Commission voted 6-1, with Mayor Harvey Ward in dissent, to approve a land-use and zoning change for approximately 1,800 acres of woods and wetlands in north Gainesville, along State Road 121 and U.S. 441. The change paves the way to allow a minimum development of 668 homes and a maximum of roughly 12,000 homes to be built.

"It is absolutely the largest land-use action we are likely to see in modern Gainesville," Ward said Friday.

Though officials remain skeptical whether the maximum number of homes will eventually be built, it's expected that homes will become available for purchase as the project is rolled out over the years and bring in more than 20,000 people.

Currently, no development proposals for the site have been filed with the city.

History and future of the land

In 2007, the land was annexed in the city, spurring a 14-year fight over development rights. The property, owned by Weyerhaeuser − the largest landowner in the country − is ripe with wetlands, which county officials have a say in.

The property was originally owned by Plum Creek before Weyerhaeuser acquired it in 2015.

Under Plum Creek, the land had agricultural land use and zoning, meaning no homes could be built there. The property was eventually annexed into the city limits with the idea of developing the area.

For years, the site posed challenges due to its patches of residential and conservation land use throughout the property, but zoning never changed.

In September 2022, the city's planning board voted to deny the rezoning proposal.

The Suwannee St. John's Sierra Club has questioned the proposal, arguing that it "would allow for massive new sprawl in one of the least developed parts of the city."

Under the plan, Ward said, 5% of the homes constructed are required to be for residents earning 80% or less of the median income, which amounts to 668 homes.

Though Ward voted against the plan, he acknowledged that the approval allows for 1,160 acres of managed conservation is an improvement from what has taken place over the past few decades.

City staff, however, argued otherwise, saying the plan includes a more dense and clustered development that "establishes an efficient and non-sprawling land use pattern that protects wetlands and environmentally sensitive areas."

Ward acknowledged the scope of the project, but not for its potential to build homes.

"This is the largest conservation action in Gainesville history, and is the direct result of years of often tense negotiation between city government and Weyerhaeuser and its predecessor," he said. "This includes large areas of formerly developable uplands in addition to wetlands."

Commissioner Bryan Eastman said he reluctantly supported the plan, which was first passed by the previous commission, and said it was the best outcome available.

"My preference would have been to not develop this area at all, but that wasn't really an option," he said Friday. "We maximized the land in permanent conservation, protected the wetlands, built affordable housing, and limited the impacts of sprawl as best as possible.

"In lieu of a time machine to go back and stop prior commissions from approving the annexations and land rights, this was a great outcome that was years of hard work."

The development will be serviced by Gainesville Regional Utilities' water and wastewater, while only the bulk of electricity will be provided by Clay Electric.

Despite its enormous size, the project has caught little fanfare over the years compared to smaller-scale projects and zoning changes. Ward said he never once saw the auditorium at City Hall over-filled with people throughout the long debated history of the land's transition.

"It is easier and more likely, I suppose, to stir the heart over one tree, as I’ve seen more than once in office, than over thousands of trees," said Ward, referring to a recent outcry to save a live oak tree in front of a restaurant downtown.

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