Plum Creek Timber Company (“Plum Creek”), the largest private landowner in Alachua County and the entire nation, proposes to develop a substantial portion of the 65,000 acres of land it owns in Alachua County east of Newnans Lake. To achieve its proposed plan, Plum Creek seeks the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners’ (“County Commission”) approval of amendments the county’s “comprehensive plan” (also known as the “comp plan”). The Plum Creek plan has generated significant debate and controversy in the local community. Through a “community planning process paid for by Plum Creek called Envision Alachua, Plum Creek points to benefits such as economic development combined with land conservation and environmental sustainability. Others in the community, such as the Stand by Our Plan group, don’t quite see it the same way. Despite the overarching controversy, two basic questions are often asked: 1) where does the County Commission get its authority to dictate how Plum Creek uses its land, and 2) what is a comp plan?
Like all other local governments in the United States, the County Commission has significant authority to regulate land use within its jurisdiction. Based on interpretations of the 10th Amendment of the United States Constitution, this authority is deemed a “police power” reserved to the individual states, as opposed to the federal government. The individual states, in turn, delegate this power to local governments either by enabling statues or through the state constitution. “Police powers” are broad inherent powers, allowing local governments to regulate to protect what is often described as the “health, safety, and general welfare” of its citizens. However, while broad, various restrictions also apply to this power. For example, the government may not take private property without providing proper compensation to the property owner.
Originating from these “police powers,” comprehensive plans establish a coherent vision for the extent, distribution, and timing of future development and growth, and thus serve as a guide to future land use decisions. In Florida, state law requires all local governments to adopt comp plans for their jurisdictions. Alachua County’s current comp plan became effective in 2011 and can be viewed here. In addition to adopting comp plans, local governments are also responsible for amending comp plans and implementing the plans through appropriate land development regulations, keeping in mind these regulations must be consistent with the comp plan. Click here to view the statutory provision in Florida law laying out the mandatory and optional elements of a local government comp plan.
Since Plum Creek’s plans contemplate an area of more than 15,000 acres, it seeks amendment to the comp plan through a “sector plan.” A sector plan is essentially an optional land use planning tool that local governments can use to facilitate long term planning for larger geographical areas. Sector plans consist of two planning phases—a conceptual long-term master plan and more specific detailed specific area plans. Plum Creek has submitted a long-term master plan to the Alachua County Growth Management Department, and these types of plans must be adopted through amendment to the comp plan. Click here to navigate to an Alachua County Growth Management Department’s webpage about Plum Creek’s plan. The second phase—detailed specific area plans—comes later, and these specific plans require no comp plan amendment. Click here for the statutory provision in Florida law providing for sector plans. Although the County Commission makes the decision to adopt a sector plan, a variety of other entities have been, may be, or will be involved in the process, such as the regional planning council (the North Central Florida Regional Planning Council in this case), the Alachua County Planning Commission, and the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.