VALDOSTA -- Until recently, the word "island" might have evoked images of a tropical paradise with sandy beaches surrounded by water for most Valdostans. However, the term has now become associated with an uncertain future for the 2,000 or so residents of the 92 islands affected by the Valdosta City Council's proposed annexation.
Currently, a cartographer cannot draw one line around the City of Valdosta, denoting its limits. Instead, one line surrounds the entire city, with 92 separate circles around approximately 1,200 parcels of land within what is largely considered to be the city's limits.
These islands of unincorporated Lowndes County were created decades ago by zoning which allowed property owners to seek annexation into the City of Valdosta for access to services and public utilities. A state law passed in 1991 prohibited cities from creating any additional islands, and subsequent laws passed in 1992 and in 1999 gave cities broad powers in annexing these islands into the city limits, with no voter referendum.
While some welcome the change and several of the owners in the 92 islands affected are actively seeking the annexation, other residents have expressed anger and confusion about the proposal. More
than 400 people attended a general information meeting held at Mathis Auditorium recently, with several very vocal opponents addressing the annexation proposal.
A public hearing is scheduled Monday following the Greater Lowndes Planning Commission meeting at 6:30 p.m. at Mathis Auditorium. The hearing's purpose is to allow those affected by the proposed annexation to voice their opinion concerning changes in zoning and is not a general public hearing on the topic of annexation.
A public hearing will be held at 6:30 p.m. on March 10 at City Hall, following the City Council's regular meeting, at which time citizens both for and against the proposal will have the opportunity to speak. The Council will vote on the proposal on March 24.
Valdosta City Manager Larry Hanson and South Georgia Regional Development Center planner Anne Marie Wolff answered questions Friday concerning the proposed annexation of the city's islands, addressing issues that are creating confusion among those affected by the potential council action.
According to Hanson, the issue of annexation has been studied for at least the past decade by the city. Issues of public safety and problems brought to the city administration's attention by the 911 board, as well as the Lowndes County Board of Health, have brought the issue to the forefront in the past three years.
"We are making progress. Several years ago, there were more than 2,000 acres in islands and there are 1,705 acres now. We've eliminated a number of them through natural, voluntary annexation," he said.
Hanson and Wolff addressed the following issues:
Zoning: If approved, the rezoning and annexation would be done concurrently. Most of the parcels have the same or similar zoning between current use in the county and in the city, and those who don't, particularly those with some form of agricultural use, could be grandfathered in under their existing use and be labeled as legal non-conforming, as long as there is not a one-year break in the current use. Hanson said the zoning stays with the property, regardless of whether it is sold.
Reducing islands: Hanson said state law would allow the council to let some of the parcels in one island be annexed without all having to come into the city. "Anything that reduces the size of an existing island is allowed and is not considered the creation of a new island," he said.
Island Size: Islands range in size from one parcel to dozens. According to Wolff, in Cherry Creek alone, there are nearly a dozen individual houses which are considered islands. Hanson said when the zoning was initially done in that particular neighborhood, residents were allowed to choose between the city and the county.
Services: When asked what services would be made available to residents annexed into the city, Hanson said police, fire, code enforcement and sanitation would be immediate on the date of the annexation.
Utilities: It would take the city 7 to 10 years to extend water and sewer service to all properties. Some would receive services in less than a year, depending on the proximity of the current lines to the property. Hanson said the islands would be ranked according to need, price, desire and proximity, with those ranked highest serviced first.
Paying for Utilities: The city is proposing to pay the $15 million estimated to extend the water and sewer lines through the islands, but legally cannot pay to extend the lines across private property to a home or business. Currently, those annexed into the city have to pay the cost of hooking to the system, regardless of how far away the lines are. Hanson cited a developer who recently submitted an application for annexation, who is paying $500,000 to extend the lines through a new subdivision, with those costs added to the prices of the lots, which he said is standard practice for most developers.
Connect fees: Connecting fees could range from $500 to more than $2,000, depending on the distance from the lines. The city cannot work on private property and homeowners would have to pay a contractor to do the work. However, the city could assist homeowners by allowing the connection fee to be paid interest free on the homeowner's utility bill over a three year period, if a hardship case was presented. As the lines are run through an area, homeowners would have a designated time period in which they would have to hook onto the system.
Public Safety: The Lowndes County Sheriff's Office has jurisdiction over the entire county, and can make arrests and pursue suspects anywhere within the county, regardless of city limits. However, the Valdosta Police Department only has jurisdiction within the city limits. Hanson said this has created several unusual problems, citing one business whose building is in the city but whose parking lot is in the county. "Officers responding to a fight at the business had to turn around and let the county take over because the fight moved from inside the building to the parking lot, and they no longer had jurisdiction." Hanson said the island in question consists solely of the business' parking lot and one adjacent vacant lot.
Septic Systems: State law now prohibits a well and a septic tank on a parcel less than one half acre in size, which wasn't in effect when many homes in Lowndes County were built. Wolff said there are a number of homes in the islands which would be ineligible to replace current septic systems under the law.
Addressing: The city and county have different addressing systems, with odd and even numbers on different sides. Some neighborhoods might have to be re-addressed in the future to eliminate confusion for 911 responders.
Fire Response: While there is a mutual aid agreement in effect, the city cannot respond unless asked to by the county. Also, without water lines, the islands lack fire hydrants, which can hinder response and ability to fight fires.
Effect on Lowndes County: All city and county residents currently pay county taxes, and the county would not lose any tax money. According to Hanson, the county would also not have to continue maintaining the roads in the islands or provide services, including trying to extend water and sewer lines into the city limits to serve county residents.
School systems: Hanson said the city cannot answer the school question. "I wish the question would be publicly addressed by the school systems to put this issue to rest."
Schools in islands: There are currently two county schools in city islands -- Lowndes High School and Parker Mathis Elementary School. The city already provides water and sewer services to both, but charges a higher fee for the services, which would be reduced if the properties were annexed, according to Hanson.
Alternative proposal: Councilman J.R. Sessions presented an alternative proposal at the council meeting Thursday. His proposal would allow voluntary annexation, stating that those who agree in a 60-day time frame to be annexed would receive the cost of running the water and sewer services to their neighborhoods for free. Those who don't volunteer in that time frame who may request annexation at a later date would bear the full cost of extending utility services to their property. However, according to Hanson, the city still cannot access non-contiguous property, so if a property owner in the middle of an island requests annexation but those around him turn it down, the property cannot be annexed.
Timeline: If the council votes in March to annex the islands, the justice department has to vote on it, with a meeting scheduled for June. The annexation could be effective any time after, but has to be completed prior to December 31 as the tax digest for the following year is determined at that time.
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