A Microcosmic Modern Greek Tragedy
By Dave Wilson
It isn’t often that one is able to attend a contemporary reenactment of ancient Greek theater, where the outcome is known, the characters are flawed beyond repair, and the action takes place with a sense of ritualistic doomas a chorus moans in the background. The setting for this drama was the Quasi-Judicial hearing conducted at the March 23, 2015 City of Alachua Commission Meeting. The purpose of the gathering was to amend their official zoning atlas from a 154 acre planned unit development (PUD) and agriculture to Commercial Intensive, Community Commercial, and Government Facilities. In attendance were the five elected City officials, a Walmart lawyer, Staff, a couple of expert witnesses, a motley collection of environmental activists, and a rowdy audience. Not in attendance were “affected parties.”(i.e. those living adjacent to the property under consideration.) The activists were in attendance to protect Mill Creek Sink and the Floridan aquifer. This amazing Sink is located adjacent to US Highway 441 near Sonny’s Real Pit Bar-B-Q. Wes Skiles featured it in his memorable movie “Water’s Journey – The Hidden Rivers of Florida,” where a pair of SCUBA divers dropped 192 feet into the sink and swamnorth while being tracked by a nerdy physics guy walking along the surface directly above them. To this day audiences of all ages delight in this scene, where the physics guy ambles his way through Sonny’s parking lot, opens the front door, and takes his place in line at the salad bar. In short, the hearing was about this underground river and the aquifer it connects.
Before the proceedings a local activist pointed out that the City Elders refused to provide Internet access for these chambers, the commission meetings were no longer viewable on local TV, and that email contact information had been removed from the City webpage. It seems that information exchange is not a priority for this body. Since this proceeding was a Quasi-Judicial Hearing, an extensive discussion ensued to identify “affected parties.” While several members of the National Speleological Society put themselves forward as caretakers of the Sink, the Walmart attorney objected because they did not live adjacent to the PUD. The mayor agreed that these caretakers were not affected. He also stated that the final decision would be based only on testimony and evidence presented at this meeting. With this disclaimer, the Walmart Attorney tendered two expert witnessesand a member of staff to provide “competent substantial evidence.” One expert asserted that the development would not result in a significantly adverse impact to the environment without providing any data to substantiate his claim. He also pointed out that Alachua is built on a karst sensitive environment as are High Springs, Newberry, and Archer. If other communities have the privilege of such development, then we should as well. When the Walmart Attorney asked the second expert whether or not a sinkhole would preclude development, the expert respondedthat it was for the Suwannee River Water Management District to decide. No scientific data was provided throughout the questioning of these three individuals. Instead, the Walmart lawyer repeatedly asked questions of the form: “In your professional opinion …”Meanwhile, members of the audience vented their frustration with loud whispering, quite audible outbursts, and moans. The mayor banged his gavel and warned that these outbursts were uncivil and that individuals would be removed if the behavior did not stop. At one point a security guard admonished one of the ladies. Since no affected parties had been identified, no cross examination was possible.