County denies West End development plan

Alachua County’s Local Planning Agency and Planning Commission turned down a development zoning for West End Golf Course that would split the land into a 70-home development and 37-acre open space.

The county meeting, which ran late into the night on Wednesday, represented the latest chapter in a saga pitting land owners who want to develop the unkempt property against community members who want to keep the land solely recreational.

The owners bought the golf course in 1997 but shuttered it in 2019, citing a decline in golf and lack of profit. Plans soon materialized to build a development.

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The development plan morphed through multiple phases informed by community input, mainly from bordering neighborhoods. The initial plan proposed 487 residential units, commercial space and an 80-room hotel within the entire 75-acre property.

Those plans met with fierce resistance from homeowners who argued, among other things, that population density would snarl traffic in the area. The development team then adjusted its plans based on community sessions.

Jay Brown, project manager for the development company, said the new plan takes the surrounding community feedback into consideration, even though much of the community still opposes it and showed up in force at Wednesday’s meeting.

Brown said the plan cuts back on residential units to address community concerns over increased traffic and the loss of open spaces.

“We love this area, but guess what, so do other people that are coming here,” Brown said. “So what we tried to do is balance all these concerns.”

The development would consist of 70 units on approximately half the property while the remaining land stays open recreational, forming a ring around the new development and open space for the adjoining neighborhoods.

Brown and his team also proposed donating the 38 acres for the county to maintain as a park. The development team only asked for a land use change for the inner land that would be transformed into housing, allowing control of the recreational zoning to stay in the county’s hands.

The team designed the development to allow the largest trees on the land to remain as a strip through the center of the houses, and because of the low density of houses, Brown said the number of daily car trips would decrease or stay the same compared to the golf course.

“A lot of times when you do a project, the one thing you can’t run and hide from is traffic, and that’s the one thing people hang their hat on,” Brown said.

However community members still oppose the plan. Neighbors formed a nonprofit called WECARE and advocated for continued recreational use.

At Wednesday’s meeting, WECARE used public comment to counter the development’s presentation. The group asked to combine the three minutes of comment time given to individuals, pooling it together for a handful of speakers.

Though rarely done, the county attorney said the rules allow for the combination at the commission’s discretion. The commission voted to allow the move.

However, the attorney advised the paid speakers to fill out lobbyist papers before showing up at an Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) meeting.

The presenters argued that the recreation land zoning is appropriate for the area and fits with the county’s comprehensive plans.

Planning expert Thomas Hawkins asked the commission to confirm its comprehensive plan that should allow recreational use, adding that the surrounding communities are in need of recreational space.

Other speakers, including former staff, touched on the impact of the West End Golf course on the community and stated that the death of golf had been exaggerated.

WECARE also spoke to the existing residential growth in the area—more than 1,000 residential units approved for development within a mile of the location. The area, they said, needs recreation, not another development.

The commission voted unanimously against the development, but some commissioners said their reasons differed from WECARE.

Staff had denied its recommendations on several issues, largely the density of the planned development. Alachua County prefers denser developments and mixed use space to eliminate daily trips.

“The intent behind this strategy is to maximize the use of land within the existing urban cluster to the greatest extent possible to conserve undeveloped land in the areas beyond the cluster boundary,” the staff report says.

Because the West End Golf Club lies within the urban cluster, it applies to this policy.

Commissioner James Ingle made the motion to accept staff recommendation, but he said the problem with the development was the lack of density (more housing) or affordable housing.

“I think a lot of people in this room are going to be happy with the decision that I made on this, however I probably would have been vilified if it had gone the other way,” Ingle said.

He added that he could have swung the other way if the development had addressed community needs with denser workforce, multifamily or affordable housing.

Commissioners Kristen Young and Melissa Norman expressed similar feelings.

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