An issue of governance

Residents around Tower Road discuss annexation options


Published: Saturday, January 15, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 15, 2005 at 12:00 a.m.
The western edge of Gainesville could be the ground for a governmental rumble if a group of dissatisfied residents decides to launch an annexation drive or incorporate as a new city.
The ramifications are enormous for county government: the loss of millions in property taxes.
Sheriff Steve Oelrich would lose big, as well, and said he would oppose the move.
Still, some residents of the area centered by Tower Road believe getting out from under county control might be a brawl worth staging.
"The question is, will you be happy in a five- or 10-year horizon?" asked Haile Plantation developer Bob Rowe. "I see Alachua County government getting set up for a fall. We have a government that is having a hard time growing its revenue. Cutting expenses in local government is difficult, especially when we have a deficit in infrastructure and deteriorating infrastructure. We are going to be in trouble."
Meanwhile, Gainesville city commissioners may start inviting residents to annex and enticing them with benefits they believe the city can offer.
The city has traditionally waited for neighborhoods to approach it for annexation. But some commissioners said last week the city should be more proactive.
"Perhaps we need to do a little bit more of a sales job on what we are offering when you come into the city," Commissioner Tony Domenech said. "We should encourage folks in the urban services area to come into the city."
Even county commissioners who realize that annexation of the western Gainesville fringe is inevitable would be troubled by a massive annexation or incorporation drive unless it came with a lengthy transition period.
"It would be terrible," County Commissioner Paula DeLaney said. "I would hope they would at least consider transitioning through contracting with the county for services over a two-, three- or five-year period so you just don't say to 500 people, 'Sorry, there are no jobs as of Oct. 1.' "
About 25 residents of the Tower Road corridor had an exploratory meeting Wednesday. The question they posed: Should residents in a broad area between Interstate 75 and Parker Road and between Newberry and Archer roads investigate alternative forms of government?
Some were flat-out opposed to any changes. But others decided to study the options and will have future meetings with city and county officials and others knowledgeable about the options.
The area is prime real estate. While pockets of the sector have low- and moderate-income housing, much of it is golden with money. Haile Plantation, Avalon, the Quarries and Biltmore are a few of the notable subdivisions. More are coming.
The loss of taxes from that land would severely dent the county's budget. But the continued growth will further stress demands for recreation, law enforcement, fire protection, roads and other services.
Some residents say they are deprived of services already. The added growth coupled with a dearth of county money to pay for the increased service demands have some of the residents itching for change.
"We have a lot of things going on in this area, but we don't have a lot of support," said Alison Law, who organized last week's meeting. "Maybe it's time to get that support."
A county analysis last year estimated that the unincorporated urban area around Gainesville, the majority of which is west of I-75, is home to property valued at $2.7 billion.
The county would lose an estimated $21.8 million a year in taxes and fees if all of it was annexed.
County Management and Budget Director Suzanne Gable said a breakdown specifically for the Tower Road corridor has not been done. But she said it would be a major financial hit.
"The two things that drive this for the county are the property values and the population because all of the revenue we get come from those two things," Gable said. "It would be hard for the county to lose that area. Gosh, it would hurt so much because it's a lot of people and a lot of good property. It really is where your good property values are."
Gainesville and Alachua County are planning for the eventual annexation of the urban reserve. The county wants it done in a planned, controlled fashion so it can adjust to the loss of revenue.
Two areas of land west of I-75 are already in the city - Home Depot off Tower Road and the under-construction Portofino subdivision off SW 20th Avenue. The city also owns a nature area next to Portofino.
To qualify for annexation, the proposed area must be located next to city land. For instance, Haile Plantation alone cannot be annexed because it does not adjoin Gainesville city limits.
Annexation can be voluntary if all property owners in the area sign a petition agreeing to it. Otherwise, a referendum is held for voters who live in the area.
Gainesville Management and Budget Director Becky Rountree said an analysis is a first step in annexations. It would compare all of the taxes and fees residents and businesses of the county pay against those paid in the city.
"For a lot of people, it comes out close to being a wash," Rountree said.
The city also analyzes how much it will cost to provide services to the annexed area.
Annexation has a spotty success rate. An 80-square-mile effort that included Haile Plantation and other areas west of I-75 failed by 208 votes in 1992. Some smaller attempts since then have failed, while others passed.
In 2002, a big chunk of land between Archer and Williston roads and SW 23rd Terrace and I-75 was voted into the city. But a section of similar demographics - apartment complexes catering to college students - along SW 20th Avenue failed in 2003.
Even rarer in North Florida is the incorporation of new cities.
Alachua is the youngest city in North Florida - incorporated in 1905. Meanwhile, about 20 new cities have been established in Florida since 1990. Most are in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.
Incorporation is a lengthy process governed by lots of state rules. To even qualify in Alachua County, the area must have at least 5,000 residents and be at least two miles from another incorporated city. The subdivisions immediately on Tower Road easily have more than 5,000 residents.
Recent talk of annexation has heated up the rhetoric among government officials.
County Commissioner Lee Pinkoson, for instance, has concerns about a clause in a proposed county vision statement that states the commission will not contest annexations.
"We don't have a transition plan in place. Until we do, I can't see that the county would accommodate annexations when it is shown that financially it hurts the county," Pinkoson said. "I think any annexation that is done needs to be revenue-neutral. We need to get to the point where it doesn't hurt us. If we lose a fire station that was paid for by just county residents, we should be compensated for that."
Some city commissioners accused county commissioners of being all talk and no action when it comes to annexations.
"I think we were told by some county commissioners on the last one they would be supportive, and they weren't," City Commissioner Ed Braddy said. "They will always see it as an assault on their general fund. We just have to be cautious of that."
Gainesville and Alachua County are working toward an overall annexation transition plan.
But Oelrich will have concerns about any major annexations or incorporation of new cities.
Annexations hit the Sheriff's Office hard because his road patrols are funded from a special tax only on property owners in unincorporated areas. The loss of residents means the loss of that money.
He is opposed to annexations and incorporations. Instead, Oelrich supports a form of unification similar to Jacksonville and Duval County.
"I think we are at a crossroads. We need to choose whether we are going to go with a South Florida model where we have 26 or 28 municipalities, all with city commissions. Or do we want to go with a Jacksonville model," Oelrich said. "I'm not in favor of annexation or incorporation. I think it's going in the wrong direction. I think we need to pool our resources."
Cindy Swirko can be reached at (352) 374-5024 or swirkoc@ gvillesun.com.

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