Stormwater fees argument between Gainesville, School Board quelled

Published: Thursday, January 5, 2012 at 3:10 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 5, 2012 at 3:10 p.m.

The legal fight brewing between the city of Gainesville and the Alachua County School Board over stormwater fees has been quelled.

The two governmental bodies met in a marathon mediation session Wednesday and hashed out an agreement to end the long-running dispute over the district's nonpayment of the fees.

School District Deputy Superintendent Sandy Hollinger said there was a sense of accomplishment when all parties left the meeting.

"If we can think outside of the box, we can solve some very difficult problems," she said.

Mayor Craig Lowe announced the deal at the start of Thursday's City Commission meeting, calling it "very good news."

"It addresses the concern of the city to have stormwater treatment for water quality in the city of Gainesville, and also it addresses the School Board's concern with regard to stormwater fees," Lowe told reporters later.

The tentative agreement would give the city a 99-year lease for land at 10 district-owned sites. The city could then build retention ponds at those sites to handle stormwater runoff in lieu of charging the school district stormwater fees.

In exchange, the city will drop its lawsuit filed in 2010, when the School Board unanimously voted to stop paying the fees.

The school district also will withdraw a counter suit seeking a refund of fees paid to the city over the last 20 years.

Essentially, Lowe said, it amounts to a "wash" for both sides.

Lowe added that the agreement means the city and school district will be able to resume a more cooperative relationship on things like educational endeavors and energy conservation.

Lowe said both the City Commission and School Board would have to approve the agreement.

The district stopped paying the stormwater fees in light of two successful and similar court cases in Pinellas County, in which the schools there stopped paying the city of Clearwater. In that case, the district didn't have a contract to pay stormwater fees and a judge ruled in its favor.

In the controversy here, after failed mediation, the city of Gainesville filed suit. Both agencies met in October to discuss a possible solution before the case was set to go to trial in February.

Attorneys for both bodies as well as the mayor, School Board Chairwoman April Griffin, Hollinger and several other staff members met for mediation Wednesday, which lasted all day, Hollinger said.

"I think both (City Attorney Marion Radson) and April Griffin both introduced it, saying they wanted to think out of the box and be collaborative and cooperative," Hollinger said. "We really discussed all kinds of things, including educational programs, after-school programs."

Hollinger said the school district is the second-largest property owner of urban spaces in the county.

"We have lots of property that we would not normally lease," she said. "Much of the property we have at our different school sites would be beneficial for the city to use to enhance their stormwater management."

Building retention ponds isn't cheap, said schools facilities director Ed Gable. Gable said he was pleased when he exited the meeting.

"I thought it was a real win-win situation, and we were happy to get it behind us," he said.

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