City vs. county

Published: Wednesday, January 24, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 24, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

The Gainesville City Commission Monday evening resolved to "strongly oppose" the massive SpringHills development proposed on NW 39th Avenue in the unincorporated area northwest of the city.

Ironically the resolution came at the urging of unincorporated area (which is to say non-city) residents who believe they have little influence with the county commission, which will actually decide whether or not to approve the mixed-use development.

Even discounting City Commissioner Jack Donovan's usual histrionics (his announcement that county approval of the project would amount to a "declaration of nuclear war on the city" made for good show business but was unnecessarily provocative toward the county) it is difficult to argue that the city doesn't have a stake in this decision.

SpringHills will have 1.56 million square feet of commercial space and require $120 million worth of traffic improvements. Its development would undoubtedly have measurable economic and infrastructure impacts on nearby Gainesville. So, yes, the city does have a legitimate and vested interest in the approval, rejection or modification of what is being called the largest single development ever proposed in the county.

Unfortunately, the city has no regulatory role in the county's development approval process. (But it does have some legal standing to intervene, since SpringHills is a development of regional impact, subject to state review.)

Yet, the potential for a city-county clash over its approval is symptomatic of a serious problem in intergovernmental relations that goes back decades.

It is undeniable that county regulation of growth and development in Gainesville's suburbs has an impact on the city's future. But until the city annexes (a difficult process in itself) it has virtually no say in how its "urban reserve area" grows. And of course, by the time an annexation does occur, it's usually too late to do anything.

As it happens, on the same day county residents came to city hall to ask for Gainesville's intervention with SpringHills, the commission received a 10 year update on a visionary plan it had commissioned in 1997 from David Rusk, a Washington, D.C.-area urban policy consultant.

Titled "Healthy City, Healthy Region," the Rusk report emphasizes the degree to which Alachua County depends upon a healthy and prosperous Gainesville for its own economic prosperity. And it underscores the degree to which poor intergovernmental relations jeopardizes both Gainesville's and Alachua County's future well-being.

"The region's high-end growth is clearly occurring in unincorporated areas, particularly on the fringes of Gainesville itself," Rusk noted. "This is a very adverse pattern for Gainesville's economic and fiscal health and a primary challenge for the city's annexation policies."

Two of Rusk's recommendations are particularly relevant in light of this latest city-county clash over development in the urban fringes.

One, he recommended creation of a Corporate Limits Council, made up of city and county commissioners, to jointly plan for future annexations.

And he recommended that the city and county follow the example of the City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, in North Carolina. Those two local governments jointly plan for growth and development in Charlotte's unincorporated reserve areas.

Joint city-county planning for suburban Gainesville has been talked about for two decades. But while some cooperative planning has occurred, it falls far short of what's needed. Moreover, if joint planning for the urban reserve area was coupled with a more rational and better planned mechanism for annexations, both city and county would benefit.

Gainesville shouldn't have to interject itself into a raging controversy over a giant development on its urban fringes at the behest of angry county residents. If city and county governments were partners rather than rivals, collaboration would have begun at SpringHills' conception.

The Rusk report contains several recommendations that could form the foundation for a new and more productive era of city-county collaboration. We urge commissioners on both sides to take it to heart and embrace Rusk's premise that a healthy city and a healthy county cannot exist independently of one another.

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

Comments are currently unavailable on this article

▲ Return to Top