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Island warfare brewing between Hall, Gainesville

City’s aim to annex corridor areas rankles county leaders

POSTED: June 13, 2009 11:11 p.m.
SARA GUEVARA/The Times

Gainesville officials plan to annex all the unincorporated county islands, including the Hall Book Exchange on Thompson Bridge Road, on major entrances to the city.

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For the second time this year, the Hall County Board of Commissioners is objecting to a possible annexation by Gainesville.

Only this time, the commissioners who object say they do not plan to drop the issue.

Gainesville officials announced Thursday their intent to annex 60 unincorporated properties that lie along major entrances to the city: Browns Bridge Road, Cleveland Highway, Atlanta Highway, Thompson Bridge Road and Dawsonville Highway.

City officials have said the annexation would make for more consistent zoning standards on the city’s “gateway corridors.”

The annexation process requires the city to hold two public hearings on the proposal. Hall Commission Chairman Tom Oliver said the county likely will hold its own public hearing on the matter in July.

Oliver alleges the annexation is just a revenue generator for Gainesville. City officials estimate annexing the properties would bring in $65,540 in tax revenue for the city and an additional $192,431 for the school system.

If the annexation becomes reality, the county stands to lose money. Owners of the 60 properties would no longer have to pay the 1.51-mill fire tax that residents of unincorporated areas pay for Hall County fire protection.

“As far as the county departments that the commission oversees, the fire department is the only one that loses tax money during annexations,” Hall County Fire Chief David Kimbrell said.

Since the properties up for annexation are 82 percent commercial, the county also stands to lose revenue from business licenses when they are renewed next year, said Susan Rector, Hall’s director of business licenses.

Though Rector said she does not yet have enough information to calculate how much the county may lose, she said the department’s fees range from $116 to a little over $8,000 annually, depending on a business’ number of employees.

City officials started discussing the annexation after a property owner on Thompson Bridge Road, a major entrance into Gainesville, asked the county to rezone the tract and allow for a used-car dealership. County officials denied the request, but the property was near Gainesville’s city limits, and the threat of the car dealership hit close to home.

Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Bruner, who could not be reached for comment for this story, said earlier this week that the proposed annexation would allow the city to control the look of properties on the gateway corridors. If all the unincorporated islands were annexed, Bruner said the city would have a say in zoning matters and therefore apply more uniform rules for businesses on those roads.

“It would clean up those boundaries, so to speak,” Gainesville City Councilman George Wangemann said. “Sometimes, it’s hard to get some property owners to clean up their properties because they’re in the county. It makes it difficult to have a uniform look in each of those corridors.”

Oliver balked at the notion that the city wanted to protect the look of its entryways.

“This is just a revenue source,” Oliver said. “And they’re hiding under the disguise of they want it better than the county wants it? They’re going to do a better job managing the growth and managing the impact than the county’s going to? That their zoning department is better than our zoning department? That their overlay district is better than our overlay district?

“... I guess the main thing is they say they do a better job protecting zoning in the city than we do in the county, which, I think, is not even close.”

City officials soon will submit an official application to start the process of the annexation. It would appear first before the city’s Planning and Appeals Board before going to City Council for final approval.

Joe Diaz, vice chairman of the planning and appeals board, said while he has not decided whether to would vote in favor of the annexation, he can understand that City Council might fear that the county may not protect the city’s zoning interests.

The county’s recent agreement to lease the old Hall County Jail in Midtown Gainesville to Corrections Corp. of America against city leaders’ wishes showed that Hall is not looking to protect Gainesville’s interests, Diaz said.

“That was an action by the county directly contrary to the interests of the city,” Diaz said. “I think that was a wake-up call. It was to me personally; I was shocked.”

Until recently, Diaz said he assumed that the county commission was “on the same page” with the city, but not any more.

“The assumption that we’d be looked out for in these areas (gateway corridors) has gone away,” Diaz said. “It’s a matter, in my opinion, solely of protecting our gateway corridors.”

The possibility of having the county commission decide if a used-car dealership should be allowed on Thompson Bridge Road made Diaz more aware of the city’s need to clean up boundaries on the entrances to the city.

“They (commissioners) didn’t do it, thankfully, but who’s to say what will happen tomorrow?” Diaz said.

But Hall Commissioner Bobby Banks said the county looked out for interests of residents near the Thompson Bridge Road property when it denied the dealership request.

“We listened to the neighbors,” Banks said. “We didn’t allow them to put a used-car lot there.”

Banks said the city is cherry-picking the islands, opting only to annex those that will bring in the most revenue for the city and not considering desires of the property owners.

“Eight-five percent is commercial and they don’t want residential because they’ll have to put them through school, and on and on and on. Yeah, I’m definitely against it,” Banks said.

In response to Banks’ comments, Diaz points to the commissioner’s first objection of an annexation into Gainesville’s city limits, which Banks later dropped.

Earlier this year, the commission filed an official objection to a request to annex part of Chicopee Woods, with road frontage on Interstate 985, into Gainesville.

Banks alleged that the annexation was an attempt on the behalf of Gainesville’s police department to create a speed trap on the interstate. As a result, the county filed an official objection to the annexation and held a public hearing on the matter.

After the hearing, commissioners dropped the objection.

“It appears certain county commissioners want to make this some sort of sinister plot by the city, but that’s not what we want to do at all,” Diaz said. “The same people made the same allegations (before) and failed to back it up with anything. This is just more of the same.”

But Oliver said the county probably will not drop its objection to annexation of the gateway islands.

“We’ve got a lot of people that don’t want to be made to go into the city,” Oliver said. “(The I-985 annexation) was not a force of any small group of people that was going to take money out of their pocketbook. That was a different situation than this.”

State law allows cities to annex unincorporated islands without the consent of property owners. If city and county officials can agree on one aspect of the issue, it’s that some officials from both sides are opposed to forcing property owners to annex.

“If they (property owners) don’t want to annex, they (the city) can make them anyway and that’s definitely not right,” Banks said.
City Council dropped a previous plan to annex all of its unincorporated islands in the city late last year after hearing from numerous angry property owners who did not want to pay higher taxes for city services.

Wangemann feels the city should not force any property owners in now, either.

“If a property owner doesn’t really want to come in, I really don’t see any benefit to forcing them to come in,” Wangemann said.

Other council members did not return calls seeking comment by press time.

Wangemann said the best solution to the problem with inconsistent zoning patterns on the city’s gateways is to work together.

“If we’re so concerned about the appearance of the corridors, then we ought to work jointly with the county and the property owners to bring the desired change,” Wangemann said. “... These are tight times for budgets, and the county’s concern that they don’t want to even lose a few pennies, I understand that concern. I guess I have the same concern and I don’t want to leave someone else high and dry.”



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