By Kyle Giest

Whitey Markle and the Swamprooters treated guests to folk music as they walked into the Stand By Our Plan Rally and Picnic held at Marshall Irby’s farm on Sunday, May 22. Friends chatted as they waited in line for burgers and Wahoo, provided by The Real Meal, and took seats among the pecan trees that swayed in the light breeze of one of the last spring days of the year.

Eighteen minutes by car and 13 miles from Southern Charm Kitchen, Irby’s farm is a quite a trek from the city. The farm, surrounded by forest off of County Rd 234, is essentially ‘ground-zero’ for Plum Creek’s plan.  

It was just a handful of long-time Alachua County residents, involved in Suwannee – St. Johns Group/Sierra Club, who discussed Plum Creek Timber Corporation’s real-estate development proposal in December 2013. Stand By Our Plan (SBOP) emerged from their discussion to combat Plum Creek’s marketing scheme of a “community vision” for the future. Since that meeting over two and a half years ago, SBOP has turned the Plum Creek plan – a plan that would bust the county’s critical urban growth boundary and fill hundreds of acres of wetlands – into a hotbed political issue in Alachua County.

In March of this year, the citizens of Alachua County pulled off an improbable victory in round two with Plum Creek, when the county commission, in a 3-2 vote, denied Plum Creek’s proposal for development rights to 5000+ acres of its rural timberlands in the eastern half of the county.

The afternoon picnic launched the lead up to the next face-off with Plum Creek. Long-time activists from the Alachua County community and many rural residents from “ground zero” enjoyed the food as Scott Camil approached the microphone.

Camil, the long-time Gainesville political activist (who just turned 70) and lead coordinator for Stand By Our Plan, introduced the speakers to the mixed group of nearly 150. Camil explained the realities of the Alachua County citizens’ fight with this Washington-based, billion dollar corporation. His message was clear: the hard work put in by numerous citizens over the past two years has blocked Plum Creek’s corporate astroturfing campaign thus far, but it is not over. The next round of the Plum Creek battle won’t be in the hands of the county commissioners, but with Alachua County citizens voting at the ballot box.

“All Plum Creek has to do is win one of those seats,” Scott explained, referring to Commissioner Byerly’s and Hutchinson’s county commission positions, “and all our hard work will be for nothing. We have to win every time. They only have to win once and we lose our quality of life. We lose our wetlands.”  According to recently released Chamber of Commerce documents, Plum Creek might even have a new weapon in the form of a PAC at its disposal now to influence elections.

County Commissioner Mike Byerly, the public official whose goal since the formation of Stand By Our Plan has been to fairly inform the citizens about Plum Creek’s development proposal, spoke next.

“This election is about the Plum Creek issue,” he said. In essence, it is a community referendum on Plum Creek’s proposal, given their distinct positions on it, Mike explained. Byerly will be defending his district 1 seat, and the rural residents of the county, against Kevin Thorpe, an Envision Alachua task force member. This is the same Thorpe who has expressed homophobic views in the name of divine morals. Robert Hutchinson will be facing against pro-Plum Creek candidate, Larry McDaniel, in the district 3 primary.

“We don’t want to be like South Florida,” Byerly warned as he wrapped up his speech.

Jim Dick rose to the microphone next. His first words to a crowd composed of many Bernie supporters: “I’m a Republican”.

For Jim, his political label means little now. After moving out onto several acres of rural land in the over ten years ago, Dick’s plans were to lead a quiet, secluded life and raise chickens. But Plum Creek’s development plans threw his world upside down when his rural home became ‘ground-zero’ for its development.

“The most important thing in my life is my house,” Dick explained. “I don’t want to live in a city in the swamp.”

But Dick’s focus wasn’t Plum Creek on this day. Highways were on his mind.

The Florida Department of Transportation, also known as FDOT, is currently studying options for “new multimodal and multi-use transportation corridors between the Tampa Bay region and I-75 in North Central Florida.”

Essentially unreported in Alachua County until the Gainesville Sun’s benign article about ‘transit options’ came out May 21, the FDOT project could lead to the creation of a highway that passes through rural areas of Alachua county — displacing long-standing communities and destroying ever-decreasing pristine natural areas — in the name of  providing relief to I-75 and “creating economic development opportunities in rural areas.”

“There is going to be development in Florida, that’s fine. But let’s be smart about it,” Dick explains. Dick and a few other SBOP activists have attended every I-75 relief task force meeting thus far, and continue to post information on the high-traffic facebook page, WHO IS PLUM CREEK AND WHY DO THEY WANT TO DEVELOP OUR BACKYARD? He is also a member of the more recent, but just as self-explanatory, citizen facebook group, I-75 Relief – North Central Florida info.

Members of the crowd listened intently to the Republican who will be switching his voter card to ‘Democrat’ this summer. The August 30 democratic primary in Alachua county will be a chance for residents to vote, essentially directly, on the Plum Creek issue. And for Jim, his house and his way of life are more important now than the colors red or blue.

“We don’t really want to be turned into South Florida here,” Jim said, reiterating the concerns of Mike Byerly. “No toll roads. No limited access highways. Period.”

Last to talk was Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson. A new face to many Stand By Our Plan citizen-activists, Malwitz-Jipson is an organizer for the recently started fight against phosphate mining interests on the New Santa Fe River in Union and Bradford counties. In the three months since initial organizing, citizens of Union county have been able to get a moratorium on mining. Their facebook page already has 1,372 likes.

But Bradford County is a different story. “[County officials] are not listening to their citizens,” Malwitz-Jipson explained. She continued to explain their work to protect the springs and estuaries of North Central Florida. “Having a mine that is 11,000 acres” she explained, “is the worst thing in terms of development.”

Citizens’ biggest needs at the moment, she said: experts in planning, engineering, water, and related fields to help convince Bradford county from making a decision that would sell its people and environment to corporate interests.

Concerned citizens, including those of Alachua County whose water quality would inevitably be degraded by the presence of a mine, have been asked to sign an online petition opposing the phosphate mining — so far, it’s up to 2,648 signatures.

“I don’t want to see South Florida or Orlando, or that type of sprawl in our area,” Malwitz-Jipson concluded.

For activists and rural residents alike, South Florida symbolizes one thing: sprawl. It’s a term that conjures up images of congestion, traffic, and the absence of natural areas for miles. And the studies about sprawl corroborate these images: citizens who live in metro areas with high sprawl indices, such as Tampa and Miami, spend significantly greater percentages of their household incomes on transportation and have less economic mobility. In contrast, citizens living in more compact, connected areas, such as Gainesville, “tend to be safer, healthier and live longer than their peers in more sprawling metro areas.”

The county planners at Alachua County Growth Management have unequivocally  shown how Plum Creek’s plan meets the state’s criteria of sprawl. A new highway and a phosphate mine wouldn’t help much either. A South Florida future for Gainesville doesn’t seem so far off now. But there is hope.

What started as just a few concerned residents in late 2013 has transformed into a coalition of citizens fighting on multiple fronts against the onslaught of development that threatens to carve up North Central Florida. With citizens organizing, Gainesville and greater North Central Florida may yet hold on to the unique character and beauty that attracts people to these areas in the first place.