County, cities now working on annexation workaround


Published: Tuesday, February 18, 2014 at 5:36 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, February 18, 2014 at 5:36 p.m.

There has been talk of repealing a controversial state law governing Alachua County's annexation process, but now area officials are working on a different bill that would salvage part of it.

The Alachua County League of Cities and County Commission met Tuesday afternoon, and the Boundary Adjustment Act, which was established in 1990, dominated the discussion for more than an hour.

The law has been contentious for years among most of the county's municipalities, but officials are trying to reach a consensus on an alternative to completely repealing it. All of the municipalities except Gainesville have previously voted in favor of its full repeal, but the County Commission, like Gainesville, has expressed qualms about doing that.

The part of the law the cities hope to salvage is the portion permitting the designation of urban reserve areas that outline the lands each municipality could decide to annex in the future. But the League of Cities' proposal would alter the way that process is handled.

Hawthorne Mayor Matt Surrency, the president of the Alachua County League of Cities, suggested on behalf of the cities that a 10-member reserve review board be created to make decisions on requested changes to the reserve area boundaries. Right now, those decisions are made by the county, but this new board would be made up of one elected official from each municipality and one from the county.

The board would hear and resolve challenges regarding reserve-area boundaries and would require a supermajority vote to alter those lines.

The county has to referee its own fight at times in its current role overseeing decisions about the reserve areas, Surrency said, but this would keep that from happening.

"We've seen the benefit of having the urban reserve areas to allow for planning for the incorporated and unincorporated areas of the county," he said.

County Commissioner Mike Byerly spoke positively of the BAA, saying it helps avoid the vicious contests over boundaries seen elsewhere in Florida.

"It's kind of an arms race where every municipality feels like it has to stake out its future," he said.

He asked the other officials at the dais to consider how this review board would work politically. Why would a city official stand in the way of another city's request since the time will come when his or her municipality will want to do the same?

No request will be denied unless there is a dispute between two cities, which leaves the other cities to referee, Byerly said. The county doesn't have as much of a stake in that fight.

He said he would keep an open mind but thinks this proposal would essentially repeal the BAA and replace it with a process that would result in "unchecked annexation."

Surrency said the supermajority requirement would keep a city from being able to tip the vote in its favor just by lobbying to get a couple of other officials on its side.

There was talk of a local bill from state Rep. Clovis Watson Jr., D-Alachua, to repeal the law completely, but Communications Coordinator Mark Sexton said nothing of the kind has yet been filed. Surrency said Watson wants a solution agreeable to both the county and the cities, which the municipalities hope bring to the table this legislative session.

Alachua Mayor Gib Coerper said this issue has "festered" for a long time among the cities and pointed out that the suggested solution has the support of all nine of them, including Gainesville.

Commissioner Robert "Hutch" Hutchinson said he could support the proposal with some minor revisions to ensure the review board would be run smoothly.

The cities said they would work together on fine-tuning the proposal and will send the county an updated version for its consideration. If the proposal gets the support of the county and the cities, the plan is to bring it to the Florida Legislature in the form of the Alachua County Urban Reserve Act.

After the meeting ended, Surrency told The Sun the bill, if approved, would make amendments to the BAA that essentially would repeal the law except for the part pertaining to the urban reserve areas, although that would be amended to implement the review board process.

If the bill is introduced in the upcoming legislative session and eventually becomes a law, the county would adhere to general state law on annexation, which is used by local governments throughout Florida.

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gainesville.com.

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