by Mike Byerly, Alachua County Commissioner
If you have only enough time or motivation to attend one government meeting in 2018 in defense of our environment, make it Jan. 23, 5 pm, at the County Administration building. The stakes are high, and turnout could make the difference.
Alachua County is a “charter county.” That means we have a charter, sort of like a constitution, that is the ultimate law on certain matters, and it can only be changed by popular vote.
Back in 2000, Alachua County voters overwhelming approved an amendment to its charter that authorized the County to establish countywide minimum protections for water and air. Then, for 18 years, nothing happened. Finally, after several years of analysis and an exhaustive outreach campaign with stakeholder groups, the County is poised to adopt two important new water quality regulations that would substantially reduce the harmful impacts of future development. But this effort may die on the vine.
First up, and the subject of the January meeting, is simply a proposal to extend the County’s current wetland protections to the entire County. Currently, they only apply in the unincorporated County.
The County’s standards are significantly stronger than the default state standards in use by most of the County’s municipalities, which allow developers to simply pay to destroy wetlands.
Consequently, a number of large landholders have annexed into adjacent municipalities in recent years in an attempt to evade the County’s wetland protections. Plum Creek/Weyerhaeuser is the most glaring example, with large annexations into Hawthorne and to the north of Gainesville.
Second, later this spring, the County will consider whether to adopt new standards for future growth that would reduce the pollutants in stormwater runoff that foul our streams, springs, and drinking water supplies. I’ll provide more information on this as the date for action approaches.
Characteristically, the meetings so far have been during the day and largely unpublicized, so the only feedback that County Commissioners and staff have received has been from paid representatives of the folks opposed to any new law: developers and the smaller municipalities.
The County Commission needs to learn whether the public at large cares.
Also characteristically, the threat is not so much that the County Commission will do nothing, but that they’ll accept so many “fine print” compromises that the final law is completely neutered, in ways that only the professionals can understand.
The time has come to translate talk into action. The Commission is divided on whether to act. Please attend, and bring a friend.