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Stranded on an island? Gainesville looks to annex property

Hall commissioners object to plan to annex unincorporated islands

POSTED: August 16, 2009 12:30 a.m.
Tom Reed/The Times

On the north side of town, the Hall Book Exchange building on Thompson Bridge Road would also be affected.

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Before the Gainesville City Council got a chance to hear business owners' responses to a proposal to annex their properties into the Gainesville city limits, the council was threatened with a lawsuit, a legislative veto and the burden of breaking recession-stressed business owners.

Put mildly, a proposal to annex "island" properties at major entrances into the city already has proved contentious.

Two public hearings the city scheduled for Sept. 1 to allow business owners to speak their minds on the proposal were pre-empted by the Hall County Commission's own public hearing on the matter last week.

It will be the City Council that has the authority to make the final decision, but the county's hearing, held on Thursday, attracted every level of resident from small business owner to state legislator.

A few expressed strong feelings about the city's proposal, likening the idea of forced annexation to communism and socialism, but none spoke favorably of the annexation.

The owner of Hall Book Exchange on Thompson Bridge Road, Myra Mead, said the annexation of her business could mean one less book store in Hall County. In five years, Mead said the number of book stores in the county has decreased; Ralph Waldo's, previously located on the downtown square, closed because of rising rent prices, she said.

"I've been told ... that if this property I'm renting is annexed into the city, my rent's going to be raised, and that's a really hard thing because that's my life," Meade said. "I just hope they (City Council members) understand that it's important to keep the flavor ... of the community."

John Jones, the owner of Office Pros on Browns Bridge Road, said the tax increase would mean he would have to lay off an employee.

"During the recession, which is the toughest one we've had since anybody in this room has been born, we've not laid off anybody, we've not cut hours, we've kept everybody employed." Jones said.

But officially, only two objections had been filed with the only entity capable of making a decision-Gainesville - by Wednesday, according to Gainesville's Community Development Director Rusty Ligon. The county filed an official objection, and a property owner, the owner of the Verizon Wireless building on Browns Bridge Road, also phoned in an official objection, Ligon said.

Mayor Myrtle Figueras has issued a statement saying the council will follow the law and "make the best possible decisions, by a majority vote of the Council, when each issue arises."

The annexation proposal has Hall County Commission Chairman Tom Oliver mad - suing mad.

At a public hearing he and two other commissioners orchestrated on Gainesville's annexation proposal Thursday, Oliver, with a copy of Thomas Payne's "Common Sense" sitting before him, placed a motion before the commission that would allow County Attorney Bill Blalock to fight the city's annexation "administratively and judicially."

"The Boston Tea Party is where the British came in and controlled the colonies without any representation and taxed them," Oliver said. "That's what the city's doing, taxing these people without any representation."

State Rep. James Mills, R-Chestnut Mountain, is ready to fight, too. Mills said the annexation issue is one of private property rights and that the state law that allows city governments to annex any and all of their unincorporated county islands is a bad one.

At the county's public hearing Thursday, Mills said forcing properties to annex is a communist's approach to governing. He promised to propose legislation that would allow any property owners who were annexed against their will to de-annex.

"This is not a threat," Mills said. "This is just the truth."

Oliver says the annexation issue is one of discrimination. Because the city plans to annex the mostly commercial properties along its corridors but not the residential ones behind them, Mills and Oliver both said the city is cherry-picking the properties with the most tax value.

"It's discrimination at its best," Oliver said. "And I think our county is prepared ... to file a federal discrimination lawsuit."
The city says its methodology for the proposed annexations requires properties to meet two criteria: the properties must be part of an unincorporated island and fall within the city's gateway overlay zone.

Approximately 60 mostly commercial properties worth $26 million meet the criteria. If annexed, the properties not exempt from taxes would generate $65,152 in revenue for the city and another $191,295 for the city school board, Ligon said.

Although the county will still be able to collect most taxes from the properties, the proposed annexations would cost the county government approximately $15,000 in fire tax revenues, according to a rough estimate by Hall County Fire Chief David Kimbrell. And since the properties are 82 percent commercial, the county stands to lose another $24,000 in business and alcoholic beverage license fees, according to Susan Rector, Hall's director of business licenses.

In addition, the county would also lose the excise tax revenue from the sale of alcoholic beverages at four of the affected properties.

Revenue aside, city officials say the benefit to the proposed annexation would be the ability to create uniform zoning standards on entrances into the city.

City Councilman Robert "Bob" Hamrick said he is in favor of annexing the islands on the gateway corridors for this reason.

"No question," Hamrick said. "I think it will kind of level the playing field where you will have like land uses ... you'll have uniform zoning and I think that's the primary reason that the council's considering this."

Hamrick points out that other municipalities in the state have used their ability to annex without property owners' consent quite successfully. Hamrick, like most of the City Council, did not attend the county meeting on the annexation Thursday.

Gainesville City Councilman George Wangemann was the only council member present at the county-sponsored public hearing Thursday.

After the hearing, Wangemann said he just wants to reach a compromise.

The best solution, according to Wangemann, would be for the city and county to work together with property owners to improve the look of the city's entrances. Wangemann is opposed to forcing unwilling property owners into the city limits, he said. Other council members expressed similar feelings in a previous bid to annex county islands.

And for that reason, Commissioner Ashley Bell, who represents Gainesville, wants to leave Gainesville's business to Gainesville officials as long as the city is following state law. Bell voted against Oliver's motion to fight the city's annexation proposal, arguing that the county should spend its time and money dealing with its own issues.

"Let's talk about the future of water in Hall County, let's get our employees off furloughs, let's find alternative revenues to balance our budget," Bell said. "There's plenty of things we could have an open discussion about."

Bell said the county's hearing on Thursday only furthered the "perception that the city and county are not on one accord."

In a written statement, Figueras also implied that the county's public hearing may have done more harm than good.

"Seeking only to serve the best good and to provide for the best interests of our community can sometimes lead others to much misinformation, lots of grand standing and ‘glossing over' of many past actions," the mayor wrote. "Some feel that they can only ‘save face' at the expense of ‘tearing down' someone else."

The more appropriate action for county officials, Bell said, would have been for commissioners opposed to the annexation to attend the City Council's planned public hearing on the issue.

It is a process that has worked in the past, Bell said.

Late last year, the city dropped a previous proposal to annex all of its unincorporated islands after hearing from numerous property owners who were opposed to annexation.

"I feel as though everyone who has a disagreement about being annexed into the city has recourse," Bell said. "...The city of Gainesville has done everything possible and in their normal protocol. They've done this before and after public comment have reconsidered. I don't see a system that's broken here."




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