Residents rally to oppose Thursday zoning meeting

N'Kwanda Jah, GNVoices director, at rally
N'Kwanda Jah, GNVoices director, practiced her public comment that she plans to give Thursday. (Photo by Seth Johnson)
Photo by Seth Johnson

Gainesville residents packed the pews on Wednesday at Shady Grove Primitive Baptist Church and prepared to oppose a first reading ordinance on Thursday.  

During the rally, residents held signs with the names of various neighborhoods—Porters Quarters, Fifth Avenue, Springhill and University Park. One read: “Don’t let developers tear up our town.” But the signs won’t be permitted on Thursday in the City Hall chamber, where the next showdown on single-family zoning will happen.  

Gainesville Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker encouraged citizens at rally
Photo by Seth Johnson Gainesville Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker encouraged citizens to make their position known on the zoning issues.

The commission will have the entire evening session, starting at 5:30 p.m., to discuss and vote on three items that would replace all single-family zoning with a new neighborhood residential category. During a June 21 workshop, commissioners indicated they were split 4-3 in favor of the changes, which would allow multifamily housing including duplexes, triplexes and quadruplexes in neighborhoods that are traditionally single-family homes.  

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A city housing report estimates 63% of the residential parcels in the city are zoned single-family. The supporters of the proposed changes say altering the city’s exclusionary zoning will help increase the amount of affordable housing options in Gainesville. 

Neighborhood organizer Faye Williams and Casey Fitzgerald, president of Gainesville Neighborhood Voices, encouraged the more than 100 rally attendees to show up Thursday evening. They hope to overwhelm the meeting with public comment and perhaps force a new meeting at a venue that will seat everyone interested in attending.  

Gainesville Neighborhood Voices formed as a nonprofit in the past month in order to oppose the zoning change and unite neighborhoods. 

Casey Fitzgerald, president of Gainesville Neighborhood Voices at rally
Photo by Seth Johnson Casey Fitzgerald, president of Gainesville Neighborhood Voices, speaks at Wednesday’s rally.

City Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker also spoke at the event, encouraging citizens to let their voice be heard.  

“I think we need to be mindful and very intentional about how we create housing, and that is something that this City Commission has not done very well,” Duncan-Walker said. “It has to change. You can help it change.”  

To prepare for the meeting, the City of Gainesville has sent emails that let citizens record public comments without needing to arrive in-person at City Hall. The commission will also listen to call-in public comments during the meeting—available by calling 1-800-742-1099.  

According to the city release, seating will remain socially distanced to account to COVID-19 cases remaining up in Florida. Since the pandemic began, the chamber has kept less than 20 seats for public commenters.  

At the last city meeting on June 21, citizens crowded into the chamber and city staff had to bring in additional chairs while also using an overflow room and the lobby. The crowd caused Commissioner Reina Saco to leave the dais and attend the meeting through Zoom instead.  

Fitzgerald, president of the newly formed Gainesville Neighborhood Voices, said more than 4,000 citizens had signed petitions opposed to the zoning change that would impact 63% of the city’s residential parcels. He added that if citizens show up in the hundreds the commission might delay the vote.  

Residents met at Shady Grove Primitive Baptist Church
Photo by Seth Johnson Residents from multiple neighborhoods met at Shady Grove Primitive Baptist Church.

An online petition has reached more than 2,500 signatures, and Fitzgerald said GNVoices had collected around 2,000 paper signatures while in neighborhoods.  

If not, Fitzgerald said two options still exist: vote for commission candidates willing to overturn the zoning ruling and/or file a lawsuit.  

During the upcoming August primaries, four of the commission’s seven seats will appear on the ballot. Carol Lippincott spoke at the rally, saying she had reached out to 14 of the candidates running in August. Of those, Lippincott said 11 had pledged to work toward reversing the zoning change if it passes on Thursday.  

Mayoral candidates Ed Bielarski and Gary Gordon attended the rally along with District 4 candidate Christian Newman, District 2 candidate Jo Lee Beaty and District 3 candidate Dejeon Lamar Cain. 

Carol Lippincott at zoning rally
Photo by Seth Johnson Carol Lippincott said 11 of the 14 commission candidates would work to reverse neighborhood residential zoning.

“My thought is that in the first 100 days of my time in office, I look to put a motion on the floor to reverse that stringent policy, if it passes, and go back to the current policy that we have,” Cain said, discussing his actions if elected.  

Alachua County Commissioner Ken Cornell also sat through the rally. On Tuesday, he led a motion for the county commissioners to vocalize their opposition to Gainesville’s proposed change during a joint meeting with the city.  

The motion passed unanimously but lacks any legal authority.  

Posters at the front of Shady Grove portrayed examples of multifamily housing already existing next door to single-family homes, including the Seminary Lane complex.  

Duncan-Walker said she fought against the Seminary Lane project before joining the commission. She called it maddening to listen to the community describe how the Fifth Avenue neighborhood used to look and compare that to now with projects like Seminary Lane. 

The rally included presentations on which portions of Gainesville could be most impacted, city advisory committees that had discussed the issue and what could be done to oppose or repeal the ordinance. 

N’Kwanda Jah, a Duckpond resident and one of the Gainesville Neighborhood Voices leaders, practiced her public comment address for Thursday to a standing ovation, and a trio led the rally in singing “This Little Light of Mine.”  

A trio sang This Little Light of Mine at rally
Photo by Seth Johnson A trio sang This Little Light of Mine at the rally on Wednesday.

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Thanks for covering this, very interesting to see how this will shape out.