In one development, the Gainesville City Commission approved both the largest land use and conservation action in city history on Thursday, and Mayor Harvey Ward said that record will probably remain for years—if not permanently.
The 1,778-acre property forms part of the northern border of the city and will change from an agriculture zoning to planned development, allowing a potential of more than 8,000 residential units at full build out.
The commission voted 6-1 in favor of the development ordinances with Ward in dissent. The previous commission approved the first reading of the development in October 2022.
The property, which sits off State Road 121, was annexed into the city in 1992 and then in 2007. The Weyerhaeuser Company bought the land in 2015 and began working for development, but the city denied an initial proposal in 2017, leading to a lawsuit.
“I feel good that years of pushing back and years of saying ‘no’ got us into a much better development agreement in the long run,” Ward said in a Friday interview. “But I do not feel good that it passed, but it did—6 to 1. It’s not a bad thing, overall. I just wish it had been different.”
The previous commission split during the first reading, with commissioners Cynthia Chestnut and Desmon Duncan-Walker joining Ward in the dissent.
On Thursday, Chestnut asked how the staff’s recommendation for approval fits into the commission’s ability to deny the application, especially in connection with potential litigation. In the past, staff has withheld their support of the project and recommended changes.
Sean McDermott, assistant city attorney, said the staff’s recommendation is significant because it means the application meets the city’s standards. For a zoning change, the commission rules in a quasi-judicial manner, meaning it must base its decision on competent substantial evidence and not just opinion.
“In the case of the previous denial, staff really set the commission up with that denial by providing evidence and testimony that said ‘no, staff recommends against this application,’” McDermott said.
He added that the previous denial based on staff analysis has helped the city have success in court. Chestnut noted that she’d need expert testimony that rebuffed staff’s approval to meet the quasi-judicial criteria.
The planned development will set aside 1,160 acres as an active conservation management district. The other portion of the land can now get developed with maximum densities of 20 units per acre and 60 units per acre.
The site will cluster the development in the minority of the land in order to help the environment through the conservation area and to assist if transit service gets extended to the site in the future. The developer will also designate 5% of the development for affordable housing— households earning between 80-120% of the median income for Alachua County for a family of four.
The developer will also conduct a traffic study for SR 121 and SR 441 which will bear much of the increased traffic. Based on the study, fees will be required from the developer to help with the traffic impact.
Eastman made the motion to approve the ordinances, but said the location bothered him, a sentiment shared by Ward.
“It really makes my stomach churn, the idea of approving larger developments this far outside of where our urban growth has gone up until this point,” Eastman said.
The city currently provides electricity to 70% of the property, and Ward said the city will need to negotiate with Clay Electric to take over service for the remaining portion—a process that will need approval by the Florida Public Service Commission.
A full buildout could take decades, and the first units remain more than a year from development. The entire property will need to return to the city commission for each new phase. Commissioner Ed Book said the developer had better hold its end of the contract in the first phase, otherwise, it could be harder to gain city approval for future phases of the property.