Gainesville officials say they won’t be mentioning the words "island annexation" any time soon.
Now, the officials whose actions only weeks ago were called "socialistic" by state Rep. James Mills for considering a plan that would annex all unincorporated "islands" into the city limits, instead are looking at ways of enticing landowners of the 561 parcels to annex their properties into the city limits.
The new approach to getting rid of islands could involve waiving a $745 fee the Public Utilities Department charges would-be customers to tap on to the sewer system, as well as the administrative fees, which can range from $107 to $8,568, depending on the size of the meter.
Kelly Randall, Gainesville’s public utilities director, said that since the properties in the "islands" are largely residential, the administrative fee being waived is generally going to be in the lower, $107 range. He notes that the city isn’t talking about spending large quantities of money to extend sewer into an area, rather, they are talking about waiving the fees for people who live in areas that are near an existing sewer connection.
For applicants with property in unincorporated islands, the city already waives the $500 fee it charges to annex property into the city limits. Soon, the city will send a letter to property owners in those islands, reminding them of that fact, said Rusty Ligon, Gainesville’s Planning Director.
"That would just be an additional incentive for those people that are interested, to really work with those people who are interested in annexing into the city," Ligon said.
The city’s previous plan, which could have ended in the City Council voting to annex those islands into the city limits whether the property owners were on board or not, sunk shortly after angry property owners voiced their disapproval at two public information meetings.
That most recent venture may have been a victim of the economy.
"I think the timing was challenging and the economic environment that we’re under today," Ligon said. "We heard loudly and clearly about the increase people would see in taxes ... I think the timing was really a challenge for people."
It was the idea of forcing property owners into the city limits that did not sit well with City Council members.
"The main thing is the reluctancy of the government telling someone ‘you’ve got to do something’ with a stick over their head," says Councilman Robert "Bob" Hamrick. "I don’t favor that form of government."
Neither did the other council members who were present at the Nov. 20 council work session.
Although the idea of annexing islands within Gainesville’s unincorporated islands has been a topic for the council off and on for years, Councilman George Wangemann said the discussion, as it has been in the past, is off the table of discussion — at least for this council.
"I can only see it being approached later on as the City Council changes faces," Wangemann said. "I think you have at least three of us that are opposed to it on a forced basis, so I don’t see it happening any time soon."
City officials had been considering annexing the city’s islands since a state law was passed that allowed municipalities to annex all of their unincorporated islands without the consent of property owners.
The most recent venture, Wangemann said, was a matter of "fishing or cutting bait."
"I guess we fished, so to speak, and found out that people were opposed to this ... so we decided ‘let’s get out of this thing now while the getting out’s good,’" he said.
Property owners in the islands who had bemoaned the higher taxes they would have to pay if forced to annex were no doubt pleased by the decision. But the problems caused by having these holes — confusion with public safety and the responsibility of road maintenance and the inconsistency of code enforcement — in the city limits still exist.
City Council members now say these are not "huge" problems. Public safety concerns are quelled with automatic and mutual aid agreements, they say. For road maintenance and code enforcement on roads that go in and out of the city limits, Ligon says it is an opportunity to work with the county to make progress.
"It’s an opportunity for the city and county to work together to do a project," Ligon said. "We need to sit down at the table and talk about it. I don’t think we’ve done that up to this point."
"I think it’s an opportunity to sit down and see how that would work," he added.
Councilman Danny Dunagan said he, too, hopes the two governments can work together to service the residents in unincorporated islands and the city limits alike.
He said it’s been done before when Haynes Drive needed resurfacing last year.
Other than the timing, city officials said they would not have gone about the most recent annexation talks any other way. Ligon said the planning department gathered as much information as it could and handed the information over to the council, which made the ultimate decision to put a stop to the annexation.
"I think the process was sound," Ligon said.
Interim City Manager Kip Padgett also says the process worked the way it should have.
"When we first started this, our goal was to get information out to people so council would have the information to make an informed decision," he said.
And the council’s decision was to stop the process.
"I think we heard the public loud and clear, and we just did not want to force people to come into the city that did not want to be in the city," Dunagan said.
The move ought to offer hope to property owners who felt like the public information meetings, which were designed for both city officials and property owners to gather information about the annexation, were merely a formality before the city forced them to annex, Wangemann said.
"Government does work, you know? You can fight City Hall. The city does listen," he said.