County’s 47 ecosystems protect land, allow growth

An alligator at Barr Hammock Preserve.
An alligator at Barr Hammock Preserve.
Photo by Seth Johnson

From the Santa Fe River in the top spot to the Buda Sandhills and Beech Valley at the bottom, Alachua County’s strategic ecosystems protect paths for deer and bobcats, conserve nesting areas for herons and provide direct access to the Florida aquifer.  

Alachua County set apart 47 strategic ecosystems in 2006, providing extra screening for development on 165,000 acres that constitute 26% of the entire county.  

Identified in the KNB/ Golder Associates report, the ecosystems vary in size and character. The smallest, the 27-acre Buzzard’s Roost, lies close to Newberry Road near The Rock of Gainesville. The largest, Northeast Flatwoods, swallows 18,292 acres near Waldo. 

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Alachua's strategic ecosystems
Graphic by Camille Broadway Alachua’s strategic ecosystems

The KBN report focused on private property. State and county preserves, like Paynes Prairie, were set aside from the strategic ecosystems since they already had protections in place. 

“These were sites that weren’t currently protected under public ownership,” said Stephen Hofstetter said. “The concept was to identify, locate, and describe these areas that are the most significant natural, biological communities both upland and wetland.”  

Hofstetter helped craft Alachua County’s 2006 Comprehensive Plan that first included the strategic ecosystems. He now serves as director of the county’s Environmental Protection Department. 

“There was a lot of concern, I think, for some property owners in the beginning,” Hofstetter said. 

Since their creation, the strategic ecosystem designation has changed nothing on the ground for most property owners. Hofstetter said some have even developed properties that touch or include portions of the 47 ecosystems through the county’s regular process without any extra hoops. 

“It’s a new concept; they weren’t sure how it was going to work. I think over time, we’ve adjusted and understood that it really isn’t that much different than our rural agriculture policies for anyone,” Hofstetter said. 

Development within strategic ecosystems 

Hofstetter said that property within strategic ecosystems can still be developed. The county even gives density bonuses identical to the rural agriculture bonus.  

Alligator warning sign at Barr Hammock Preserve.
Photo by Seth Johnson Alligator warning sign at Barr Hammock Preserve.

But if a development will impact a significant part of the listed ecosystem, the owner needs to complete a special area study and plan. If a small part of the ecosystem is included but not impacted, the developer can run through the normal county route.  

Hofstetter said Celebration Pointe includes a section of Hogtown Creek. But the developer said they would leave the entire part untouched and avoid a special plan.  

The first owner-initiated study concluded this year with the Lee property on Parker Road, 122nd Street, about a mile south of SW 24th Avenue. Hofstetter said the county has done these studies before, but an owner has never started one.  

The Lee property includes around 66% of the Hickory Sink strategic ecosystem. The Hickory Sink ecosystem was ranked 29 in terms of ecological value in the KNB report.  

Unincorporated Alachua County contains 90% of the strategic ecosystems, and the city of Gainesville contains 6%, followed by other municipalities.  

Building in rural agricultural areas in the county requires the use of cluster developments. If an owner wants to build on 100 acres with a density allowance of 1-5 units per acre, the development could contain 100-500 units. But the county comprehensive plan requires that development be grouped together on only 50% of the available land.  

The cluster developments allow the other 50% to remain open. The same happens for strategic ecosystems in the county. The study identifies which areas should be included in the 50% open areas—which are protected from development—and which area can be built upon.  

A trio of White Ibis perch at Barr Hammock Preserve.
Photo by Seth Johnson A trio of White Ibis perch at Barr Hammock Preserve.

“The strategic ecosystem requires you to first make sure that the area you are setting aside for open space is what’s critical to protect that strategic ecosystem,” Hofstetter said. “So, it requires you to analyze the strategic ecosystem and identify that first, and then figure out how you’re going to develop.” 

These developments also get one extra unit above the zoning density for every 10 acres conserved.  

Factors that set aside these 47 areas 

The 1996 KBN report analyzed all properties based on 6 parameters and 12 subparameters. Each parameter scored between a 1 (low priority) and a 5 (high priority).  

The six main parameters are vegetation value, landscape ecology, hydrology, wildlife habitat value, endangered species habitat value and management potential.  

Hofstetter said a strategic ecosystem only needs a high score on one of the parameters to qualify, not a combination of medium or high scores. For example, a sinkhole with direct access to the aquifer needs protection regardless of any endangered species are found in the area.  

He also said that the original boundaries of the KNB report need updating when a study is conducted.  

The team that compiled the report used aerial and infrared imagery along with driving and getting access to the sites in person. The team used physical charts to map the boundaries, utilizing property lines, roads and natural features.  

When development takes place at a strategic ecosystem, the county checks the boundaries and resources on site, a process called ground truthing.  

Hofstetter said the ground truthing cleans up the 1996 boundaries and removes non-strategic areas. Putting people on the ground to recheck the boundaries also allows the county to ensure the land still has the ecological value that placed it on the list to start.  

Use of strategic ecosystems for conservation 

Because of their ecological value, Hofstetter said strategic ecosystems scored high for conservation by the county. Since 2000, Alachua County has protected 32,506 acres through the Alachua County Forever program.  

Hoffstetter said all sales are voluntary from the owners. Some strategic ecosystems, like the Santa Fe River, includes dozens of property owners. Others contain only one. The Weyerhaeuser Company owns thousands of acres of strategic ecosystems.  

Trail at Barr Hammock South.
Photo by Seth Johnson Trail at Barr Hammock South.

“If the property owners are willing, those typically are our target areas to purchase,” Hofstetter said.  

The county has purchased parts of Watermelon Pond near Newberry and Barr Hammock Preserve by Micanopy. Other portions, like Bird Island, are under preservation through third parties.  

At its Nov. 8 meeting, the BOCC moved forward with two additional purchases along the Santa Fe River for a combined estimated cost of just over $1 million for around 263 acres.  

A county analysis from 2007 shows that 40% of the strategic ecosystems are wetlands. That status already prevents most development, and Hofstetter said purchasing these properties doesn’t hurt the tax roll.  

Most of the properties have little development potential and therefore small economic value, he said. However, preserving these lands can benefit private neighbors.  

“We’ve done reports that appear to show that actually the tax base increases as we buy these areas based on the increased land values,” Hofstetter said.  

A dragonfly at Barr Hammock Preserve.
Photo by Seth Johnson A dragonfly at Barr Hammock Preserve.

Private property value increases nearby because the county’s land—often turned into public preserves—will never change into rows and rows of homes, guaranteeing scenic surroundings for the future.  

Hofstetter compares it to some of the most valuable real estate in the world: the buildings that front Central Park in New York.  

“I’m sure, in the past, someone was thinking, ‘why are we saving a park on the most valuable land in the world?’ Yet, that park is what made those properties that much more valuable,” Hofstetter said.  

At Barr Hammock Preserve, the county still manages the land. A timber harvest started in September, and Hofstetter said the goal is to return to a more natural environment. That means more spaced-out pines instead of dense silviculture and prescribed burning to tame the understories. 

Overall, he said the strategic ecosystems have helped the county protect resources while retaining options for owners.  

“I think it’s been an effective tool to protect those critical resources, while not removing property right value,” Hofstetter said. 

Herons are a few of the many varieties of bird found at Barr Hammock Preserve
Photo by Seth Johnson Herons are a few of the many varieties of bird found at Barr Hammock Preserve, which is part of the Levy Lake strategic ecosystem, the county’s 7th highest ranked ecosystem in term of ecological value.
A Common Yellowthroat at Barr Hammock South.
Photo by Seth Johnson A Common Yellowthroat at Barr Hammock South.
A wooded trail at Barr Hammock South.
Photo by Seth Johnson A wooded trail at Barr Hammock South. (Photo by Seth Johnson)

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Tana Silva

Thank you for the thoughtful article, Seth, and your excellent wildlife photos. The county and once upon a time the city as well made growth management and environmental protection high priorities. It’s good to revisit this approach now, in the face of the growthism that has ruined other places.

Janice Garry

Thank you, Seth, for this excellent article that lays out clearly some land management points that can be confusing.
The proposed Lee property development at the Hickory Sink strategic ecosystem is a short-term focus on profit, rather than a long-term focus on preserving our water resources. With direct access to the aquifer in multiple places, this property would serve the current and future generations of humans and other life forms best by being managed without urban density.