Twice in the last year, Gainesville has sought to annex isolated chunks of property outside of the city limits along some of the main thoroughfares into town. These "island" properties include mostly commercial areas that remain in unincorporated Hall County.
Last fall, the first try at annexing 561 properties was abandoned after the property owners made their displeasure known in public hearings.
This summer, the city again tried to bring in 59 properties along Jesse Jewell Parkway, Dawsonville Highway, Atlanta Highway, Thompson Bridge Road and Limestone Parkway. And again, property owners rose up in opposition, with county commissioners coming to their defense.
Gainesville leaders have defended the move by saying including these areas in the city limits would make it easier for emergency responders who are trying to determine who has jurisdiction. While that may seem a valid argument, it’s clear that police, fire and medical officers should, and usually do, answer the call first before worrying over where the lines are drawn.
The city’s other arguments are that uniform zoning laws on the city’s main arteries would create a unified look as one drives into town, and that some areas benefit from services already paid for by Gainesville residents’ taxes.
Money really is at the crux of the matter. The more areas the city can secure within its boundaries, the more tax dollars it can generate. Gainesville would stand to gain another $65,540 plus in taxes from the annexation and $191,431 in school taxes.
Property owners in the affected areas say they are not interested in paying city taxes above and beyond the county taxes they already pay, for what they perceive to be the same level of services. Those who run businesses already are struggling to get by. Adding the city taxes to their budget could mean cutting employees, or worse, shutting down completely.
And while city residents still pay county property taxes, their school taxes could shift depending on where the district lines are drawn. Hall school leaders aren’t keen on turning loose of those areas and the tax dollars they generate.
It’s also worth pointing out who is to blame for the existence of these islands. Over the years, Gainesville, like many towns, chose to cherry-pick many high-value properties outside of its city limits, often at the request of developers. In doing so, it bypassed less desirable plots along the way in order to take the ripe fruit, often because that land was undeveloped or weak on revenue potential. Now that those areas are more attractive, it wants to go back and add them.
We witnessed the same song and dance last fall and the city eventually backed down after residents voiced their displeasure. But the issue came rising back up out of the mist again this summer, and with the same reaction.
The city may have found a back door out of this mess. Last week, two public hearings scheduled to discuss the annexation had to be canceled because the mandatory advertisement submitted to run in The Times listed the right date but the wrong day. So the hearings had to be postponed, and may not be rescheduled; that has yet to be decided.
That mistake by the city might have provided a lucky break. If the council just lets the issue fade away, it will save itself the burden of trying to annex property owners who would only become unwilling, disgruntled city residents.
Best to leave the islanders alone; they don’t want to be in Gainesville and the county doesn’t want to turn loose of them. The law may allow for forced annexation, but that doesn’t make it a good idea. In most cases, annexation should be a mutual decision between the municipality and a majority of those joining it. Those who buy property in Hall County have a right to know which government they are beholden to without that changing hands at a whim.
Unfortunately, the issue has driven another wedge between Gainesville and Hall County leaders in what has been a contentious year. The dispute over the old county jail in Gainesville’s midtown area stirred a great deal of resentment. Earlier this year, another annexation fight over property along Interstate 985 came with unfounded charges from the commission that the city was running a speed trap. Now the islands battle has reopened the wound.
No one benefits when the city and county can’t get along. What’s good for county residents often benefits Gainesville, and vice versa. And even when their interests are at odds, leaders need to put aside their turf wars and come together to work out equitable solutions for all concerned.
One leader caught in the middle of these conflicts is Commissioner Ashley Bell, whose county district includes Gainesville. He has tried to avoid taking sides on the annexation issue, and has indicated he would like to see relations improve between the two government bodies.
We agree, and hope members of both the commission and city council will follow suit. The outside world sees Gainesville and Hall County as one common area with the same general interests and needs. Our governments need to reflect this in the way they act toward each other and how they treat the people who elected them.