A year ago, the Mainstreet Daily News staff selected the biggest stories that shaped the community in 2021 and published a summary of those storylines. When we did the same thing this year, it was striking to see how many of the huge stories in 2021 fell by the wayside in 2022.
Out are mask wars, vaccine mandates, bomb threats and school board drama. In are zoning changing, a contentious mayoral race, a UF presidential search…and a different school board drama.
Here is the top news of the year, as we see it.
1. Gainesville eliminates single-family (exclusionary) zoning
Some in the community have called the great zoning debate one of the biggest issues in Gainesville history, not just this year.
Citizens packed a June workshop when the commission decided to take up the zoning issue. In the months to follow, citizens held meetings, formed groups and returned with the majority in opposition to the changes, which eliminated single-family zoning and created a new residential neighborhood zoning category.
A divided City Commission passed the zoning changes 4-3 on first reading, then finalized the decision on Oct. 17 with another 4-3 vote. Commissioners Desmon Duncan-Walker, Cynthia Chestnut and Harvey Ward dissented. Three of the four votes in favor of the changes—Mayor Lauren Poe and Commissioners David Arreola and Adrian Hayes-Santos—are term-limited and will be replaced in January.
Since the final passage, three different parties have requested administrative hearings challenging the changes. Two Gainesville citizens, Margaret H. (Peggy) Carr and Faye L. Williams, requested a hearing in November. Alachua County joined their side as a petitioner. The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity also has requested a hearing, saying Gainesville’s zoning change will negatively impact a strategic state resource: affordable housing.
2. Contentious mayoral race
In January, the Gainesville City Commission abruptly fired Gainesville Regional Utilities General Manager Ed Bielarski—and unofficially launched the mayoral race at the same time. Bielarski immediately announced a run for mayor, as did Commissioner Harvey Ward, who led the effort to sack him.
Nine candidates would eventually form the mayoral field, including Arreola and former commissioner-mayor Gary Gordon, but in August voters narrowed the field down to rivals Bielarski and Ward. In November, Ward won the runoff election by 15 points, a result Poe said vindicated the city’s current direction.
3. Natural gas costs raise GRU bills
Natural gas prices continued to run high in 2022, forcing GRU bills up and prompting citizen dismay. GRU passes on the cost of natural gas in the form of a fuel adjustment surcharge, which tripled in price, and a scheduled rate increase also helped raise bills.
GRU uses natural gas for around 66% of its electricity production, but the utility tried to run its biomass plant at full power to lower costs. Still, GRU customers had the second highest rates in the state, according to the Florida Municipal Electric Association.
The high rates factored into the mayoral campaign between Bielarski and Ward. Both candidates defended their past actions, as head of GRU and a city commissioner respectively, during debates this fall.
4. UF conducts presidential search
In January UF President Kent Fuchs announced he would step down from leading the university. UF’s presidential search committee formed in March to identify a search firm and meet with stakeholders about qualifications. According to UF, the search spanned more than 700 candidates before narrowing to 12 finalists.
However, the search committee only announced one finalist to become UF’s 13th president—sitting U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska who previously served as a professor and college president.
The committee was unanimous in its decision, but the campus was not. Faculty and students took issue with the search process, Sasse’s political views and his previous experience. During his first official visit to hold three forums, around 300 protesters clogged Emerson Alumni Hall and took over the conference room.
5. Simon out, all-female board in
A divided School Board of Alachua County voted 3-2 to fire Superintendent Carlee Simon on March 1, capping off a tumultuous 15-month tenure as the district chief.
The three-vote majority that dismissed Simon would all be gone by the end of the year. Gunnar Paulson and Rob Hyatt did not seek reelection, while Mildred Russell was defeated by Diyonne McGraw—the woman whose seat Russell was appointed to in 2021.
In November, McGraw was sworn in with new members Kay Abbitt and Sarah Rockwell. They joined Leanetta McNealy and Tina Certain to form the first all-female school board in Alachua County history.
6. Gainesville City Commission turnover
Alongside debates about zoning and the mayoral race, three other commission races marked municipal elections in August. Business owner Bryan Eastman, 33, won the District 4 race outright, but the other two went to runoffs. In November, Santa Fe College Police Chief Ed Book won the District 2 election, while UF residency program coordinator Casey Willits took the District 3 seat.
7. Alachua County Commission changes
The Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) looks the same now as a year ago after incumbents successfully defended their seats, but a residency issue flipped a seat for a few months and ballot measure could eventually alter the commission.
Commissioner Mary Alford stepped down in May after local reports that she had failed to move into her district following her 2020 election, which was required. Gov. Ron DeSantis filled the vacant seat in June, giving the spot to Alford’s 2020 opponent, Raemi Eagle-Glenn. Alford and Eagle-Glenn faced off in November again—and voters chose to send Alford back to her old seat.
However, a ballot measure for single-member districts in Alachua County also passed with 51.5% of the vote. State Rep. Chuck Clemons, R-District 21, proposed the measure as a way to give rural voters more representation on the commission, but the entire BOCC—all Democrats—opposed the bill. Leading up to the election, the issue grew contentious with mailers and claims of dark money, misinformation and improper advocacy.
The 2024 elections will be the first to elect commissioners on a district-by-district basis, although county commissioners have discussed placing the issue back on the ballot in the hope of returning to at-large county commissioners.
8. Terrell Bradley injured during arrest
A Gainesville Police Department (GPD) canine seriously injured Terrell Bradley, 30, in the aftermath of a July 10 traffic stop, which resulted in the loss of his eye. The incident led to community protests, including a mural on Gainesville’s SW 34th Street graffiti wall. It also prompted an investigation, and the suspension of the K-9 involved in the arrest.
In September, GPD Chief Lonnie Scott said a probe found that the K-9 officer acted in accordance with department policy and industry standards. But the department also disciplined five officers for “improper behavior” during the arrest, and in November, the Gainesville City Commission discussed potential changes to the canine unit, including eliminating it.
9. West End Golf Course remains in limbo
The future of West End Golf Course has been in limbo since it closed in 2019. The developer initially proposed a high-density project that included commercial and residential areas on the 75-acre parcel, but opposition from local residents caused it to scale back the project.
In April, the developer presented a 70-home neighborhood before the county’s planning board, which rejected it for a lack of density.
The project continued to the BOCC in October, who also rejected a land use and zoning change to accommodate the project. The commissioners said the land should stay recreational to the relief of residents who have spoken out against non-recreational uses.
Meantime, the property continues to languish in disrepair.
10. Newberry heats up for development
One of the hottest areas for development continues to be Newberry. Among the 2022 highlights: in May, the Newbery City Commission approved development of a major new grocery store, which is widely believed to be Publix.
In August, the commission approved a 94-lot development off State Road 45, along with preliminary plans for a new building to house city staff. In November, a South Carolina-based developer announced plans to build 212 cottage-style apartments east of Newberry in Jonesville.
Also in November, local chain Bev’s Burgers announced plans to open a drive-through restaurant across from Oak View Middle School in 2023. In December, Ellianos Coffee unveiled plans to expand into Newberry.