The Newberry City Commission and Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) voted Monday on an interlocal agreement in which Newberry promises to donate land for the county’s use in return for pushing County Road 337 up the county’s list of priorities.
The county plans to use the land for three projects: a recycling facility, fire department training center and potentially a meat processing plant.
After hearing updates on several county and city projects, the commissions began discussing the interlocal agreement. County Commissioner Ken Cornell wanted to talk about the projects, specifically the meat processing plant.
Newbery Mayor Jordan Marlowe pushed back, expressing that there was no point in discussing the projects with the Newberry Commission because the County had not finalized which projects it would be pursuing. Newberry has 25 acres set aside for the agreement, and the County will likely not require more than 22, so Marlowe wanted to focus on closing the Newberry side of the deal.
“If nothing ever else happens on 337, that road still has to be addressed,” Marlowe said in the meeting Monday. “The road as it currently sits, with current trip numbers, is already substandard engineering. It doesn’t meet modern standards.”
Marlowe urged citizens to come to the meeting in a social media post on Friday. He called CR 337 “the most dangerous road in Alachua County” and emphasized that for Newberry, the meeting was about the road, not the projects.
Newberry citizens came out in force to speak about the dangers of driving on CR 337, waiting through two hours of meeting to tell the commissions they are fearful to drive on CR 337. The road is currently scheduled for resurfacing in 2030, but the agreement would move the road work to 2026 with an additional initiative to widen the road and address dangerous curves.
“I’ve lived here 50 years, and it continually deteriorates,” Debbie Boyd, former city commissioner and state representative, said to the commission during public comment on the roads. “I do not think it will be adequate if you don’t address these issues.”
In the last three years, 37 crashes have occurred on CR 337, two of which were fatal, according to County Engineer Ramon Gavarrete. During the discussion and questioning, the board learned from Gavarrete and County Manager Michele Lieberman that the lane widening was already a possible outcome of the road pavement plan, depending on the results of a traffic study that will come out in September. A four-way stop at each of the sharp curves which concern Newberry residents is also on the table.
The curves were a special concern, according to Marlowe, who said if the road gets refinished, those curves will become more dangerous than they already are.
“The only thing slowing people down going into those curves is the condition of the roads,” Marlowe said.
County Commissioner Mary Alford moved to bump the timeline up on addressing the first segment of CR 337 and instruct city and county staff to work together on creating a funding and timeline solution to present.
Cornell proposed a substitute motion, which the commission split into two parts. The first part failed, 3-2, so the commission chose not to continue the vote to the second part. Returning to the original timeline, the commission carried Alford’s motion, 3-2.
County Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler asked about the possibility of the county purchasing the land from Newberry instead of leasing. Newberry City Manager Mike New said for logistics purposes of providing utilities, it is best for the land to be leased, but he and Marlowe expressed openness to working out an agreement that was long-term and permanent enough to satisfy the county.
Of the three projects, the meat processing facility is the most tenuous, as it has faced heavy debate from in the past several months. The project’s prospects also took a hit in June, when Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed a bill that would have provided $1.75 that could have been used to fund the plant. Over a dozen community members lined up to express their concern and protest a government-funded meat processing plant for various reasons, including animal cruelty, socialism and mental health.
The plant was brought up in February as a way for Alachua County to streamline the production line for its farmers, as most currently have to wait several months for access to a USDA-approved processing facility. Newberry has 93 acres, purchased in 2021, for a wastewater facility that left much of that unused and which the city wanted to use as leverage to get the county to pay attention to the road conditions.
The meat processing plant would be different from what most farmers currently use. This small-scale facility would likely involve small holding pens where local farmers would drop off their cattle in the morning and pick up the meat in the afternoon.
Though not scheduled on the agenda, the BOCC discussed the plant at its June 27 meeting. Cornell advocated that the board instruct county staff to end the project and put a motion on the floor to finalize the decision.
“I think we need to significantly change the direction of our staff, otherwise it will continue,” Cornell said at the June 27 meeting.
He pointed to other community needs that the county could finance with the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding instead of the meat processing facility. The county currently has allocated $2.5 million in ARPA funds for the meat processing plant.
Cornell’s motion in the June 27 meeting would have also eliminated the meat processing discussion from Monday’s joint meeting, but no one seconded the motion.
The rest of the commission said they wanted to have the scheduled joint discussion with the city of Newberry and hear public input from that meeting before making the decision.
The BOCC could not vote to approve the interlocal agreement with Newberry on Monday because it is still not finalized, but discussions will continue in the County Commission’s regular meeting on July 11.
–With reporting from Seth Johnson