County races: To use, or to water down, the Comprehensive land use plan
On Tuesday, September 10, Alachua County voters will elect the Democratic nominees for County Commission seats in Districts 2 and 4. This primary is an at-large election, and although the candidates are required to live in their districts, voters countywide can vote for candidates for both seats.
In District 2, incumbent Dave Newport goes up against Republican-turned-Democrat Lee Pinkoson. In District 4, well-known and respected former State Representative Cynthia Chestnut is challenging incumbent Robert "Hutch" Hutchinson. In most conversations about this election, talk turns to the county's Comprehensive Plan--an ambitious and visionary document that will govern Alachua County's growth in the coming years.
Both Newport and Hutchinson can boast that the latest Comprehensive Plan revision process has resulted in a document that seriously addresses environmental preservation and smart growth and will be seen in the future as a plan to be emulated by other local governments. Their challengers, however, believe that the Comprehensive Plan is flawed in various ways (depending upon whom you ask), and insist that its implementation will result in economic disaster. And these are just the Democratic challengers--wait until after the primary when the Republicans get into the fray.
Perhaps the most contentious issue with the Comprehensive Plan is the Urban Services Line (USL). The line is intended to focus development in the already-urbanized areas of the county, and discourage development in the outlying rural areas. Proponents of the line, including Hutchinson and Newport, say that it helps to control sprawl by slowing development's seemingly incessant march to the Gulf and concentrating it in areas in which infrastructure is already in place. Opponents say that the line will cause rural property values to plummet and cause property inside the line to sharply increase in value, putting it out of the reach of many prospective homeowners.
Cynthia Chestnut said in a recent forum that she supports 80% of the Comprehensive Plan, but that it isn't fair to everyone, and that we should come back to the table and work something out with all parties. "I'm concerned about what the plan does to the farmer. When you restrict [their land] so that they cannot use it, all it does is drive up the price of land and it makes affordable housing more expensive." Chestnut's campaign mailer says that she will "work to revise the recently approved Comprehensive Plan so that it makes our county a better place for all county residents to live." But the fact is that the Comprehensive Plan is a revision. Under State law, the plan is required to undergo a review and revision process every 10 years, and this process was just completed by the County.
Hutchinson says that the current county commission has planned well and that if he is re-elected, he wants to put those plans into effect. "What I've been telling folks on the campaign trail," he says, "is that the last term was about planning--this next term will be about doing. We have to write the Land Development Regulations...figure out how to properly fund transportation ...there's a lot of things we need to do in economic development." Of the Comprehensive Plan, he says it "balances the needs of the existing taxpayers to have an efficient growth pattern and the private property owners who can still develop their property." Hutchinson says that this election is a "referendum on smart growth, good transportation planning, controlling the cost of the criminal justice system, land conservation, and open and transparent government."
Pinkoson says that the Plan impacts farms negatively financially, and that it could exacerbate sprawl. He says the plan "hurts a lot of people," and that the people on the inside of the USL do not realize the impacts of the Comprehensive Plan. Pinkoson says he also wants to protect the environment but that the bottom line is that there have to be more jobs for those who don't want to go to college. He told Sally Warrick of WUFT-FM that if "we had gotten the Wal-Mart Distribution Center it would employ a lot of people who don't have Masters and PhDs," and that it would have paid a decent wage.
Newport says that we have shown that "prudent, smart growth practices... are actually good for the economy--our wages here have increased faster than inflation. Our unemployment rate is only the second lowest in the state. Unregulated growth is what the campaign is all about. Do we want to sprawl or not sprawl? We only need to go to Marion and Lake Counties just south of here to see South Florida creeping north."
Both Hutchinson and Newport have had four years to help hammer out a plan to effectively manage growth and development in this county. To turn them out of office now would have the effect of negating all the work that went into the process. If the upcoming primary election for county commission is about anything at all, it's about the very existence of Alachua County as we know it today. Two incumbent commissioners are up for re-election and are being challenged by opponents who are not willing to do the necessary work now required to implement the plan--challengers who would rather "go back to the table" for more discussion. How many people moved to Alachua County precisely because of what it is today? How many left places like Fort Lauderdale, Houston, or Los Angeles to get back to a quality of life that they'd missed for so long? Will we send them fleeing yet again, or will we enact a plan to ensure that they remain a part of a vibrant community that understands the importance of environmental preservation and growth management? Hutchinson and Newport make the best choice. Both will continue to work for sound economic development, effective growth management and an improved quality of life for Alachua County citizens.
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